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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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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 Quarterly Conversation | Issue 34 | Winter 2014

2014 already. My god. Full table of contents after the break.

Features


The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy

The Art of Disturbance: On the Novels of James Purdy

Indeed, those of us who have read deeply into Purdy’s fiction quickly enough realize that what could be called its idiosyncrasies are in fact its greatest strengths and that Purdy didn’t merely write one or two individually adventurous, original stories or novels but instead created a comprehensively original body of work, each separate work providing a variation on Purdy’s themes and methods but also exemplifying his larger achievement. Purdy wrote few, if any, really weak books.


The Uses of Uncertainty: Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” series

The Uses of Uncertainty: Dalkey Archive’s “Library of Korea” series

With any luck, 2013 should mark a watershed moment for Korean literature in English translation, thanks to the ten volumes being released by Dalkey Archive. They arrive with the support of the indefatigable LTI Korea, an institution whose existence—and budget—is frequently the cause of teeth-gnashing envy on the part of translators from less well-supported languages. All told, these ten—to be followed by ten more, currently scheduled for release in spring 2014—do an admirable job of showcasing the great range of talent to be found among modern Korean literature, which, in its contemporary iteration, seems to me to be one of the world’s most exciting, dynamic, and consistently impressive.


Valuing Experimental Literary Book Publishing as Non-Monetized Thought

Valuing Experimental Literary Book Publishing as Non-Monetized Thought

Since we appeared together last spring on the Left Forum panel on the future of experimental literary publishing, I have been trying to state clearly my intuition that our discussions about “the future of the book” have been missing something crucial. After reading George Dyson’s extraordinary history of the making of the first high-speed, random-access storage matrix computer, Turing’s Cathedral: The Origins of the Digital Universe, I think I am closer to being able to state what that crucial something is.


The Veiled Sweets: Agha Shahid Ali’s Surprising Use of Humor

The Veiled Sweets: Agha Shahid Ali’s Surprising Use of Humor

Shahid’s poems are never simple but elaborate artifices of loss and grief, papered over with passion, rendered in a signature style that is often, unexpectedly, funny, proving what 18th-century Scottish philosopher Francis Hutcheson described in his work Logic, Metaphysics and the Natural Sociability of Mankind: “Some of the things that happen to us appear delightful, fitting, glorious, and honorable to us, while others seem vile and contemptible, and we may discern yet another reflexive sense: a sense of things that are ridiculous or apt to cause laughter, that is, when a thing arouses contrary sensations at one and the same time . . . we are moved to laughter by those which exhibit some splendid spectacle at the same time as a contradictory image of something cheap, lowly, and contemptible. This sense is very beneficial, whether in increasing the pleasure of conversation or in correcting men’s morals.”


Interviews

The Mircea Cărtărescu Interview

The Mircea Cărtărescu Interview


Kafka has written a parable in which he describes a long and arduous journey. At one point he stops because he sees a high wall in front of him. Realizing that the wall is his own forehead, he has moved to the limits of his own thought. My own artistic and intellectual ambition is to blast my way through this wall, the front of my skull. I feel humiliated by the limitations imposed by my own cranium.


The Christine Schutt Interview

The Christine Schutt Interview


I do not want an impenetrable style but prize compression and music. I abhor quotidian easy speak, psychobabble, brands, news and slogans—a “writer’s prose” as Gordon Lish once described it. Mine calls for close, hard readers of fiction. This year in reviews of Prosperous Friends, I was bumped up from being a writer’s writer to being a writer’s writer’s writer; either way, it cautions challenging prose ahead. A lot is left unsaid and must be inferred simply because I want to avoid the dulling effect of belated language.


The Wayne Rebhorn Interview

The Wayne Rebhorn Interview


Some 12 years ago I was teaching this book on September 11, and was preparing to go to class when I learned of what had happened in New York City and Washington and Pennsylvania. Should I cancel class? Should I devote the class to talking with my students about the tragedy? Should I just teach it as though nothing had happened? And then it struck me: this is the perfect text for this day, a text about how people can turn to stories to help them cope with horror. Of course, I did talk with my class about 9/11, but we then moved on to Boccaccio with a renewed sense of just how important literature can be at such moments.


In Translation


From Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé

From Navidad & Matanza by Carlos Labbé

My name is Domingo. Actually, Domingo is my password here in the laboratory. Just by uttering this name—which I chose—I can enter bedrooms and bathrooms, I can make phone calls, obtain food and drink, access the temperature, hygiene, and communication systems, send and receive email, carry out Internet transactions to purchase any supplies we need. Without it, I’d be trapped in my room. If I were to suffer a psycholinguistic disruption, or if the effect of some microorganism rendered me voiceless, I’d just die of starvation.


Reviews

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa

The African Shore by Rodrigo Rey Rosa


Guatemalan author Rodrigo Rey Rosa opens his 1998 novel The African Shore with a Moroccan shepherd boy obliviously meandering by reminders of Tangier’s history. First, he passes by a ruined Spanish boating club and then the large abandoned Perdicaris house—the one-time home of the unofficial head of the international community in Tangier, and the site of his kidnapping in 1904 by a local tribal sheik that almost provoked war. Set against this backdrop, The African Shore presents the story of another encounter between a foreigner and a local in Tangier.


The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio

The Decameron by Giovanni Boccaccio


It’s a polite commonplace among scholars to assert, as G. H. McWilliam does in the introduction to his 1972 translation of The Decameron for Penguin Classics, that the work’s 14th-century author, Giovanni Boccaccio, would be immortal even if he’d never written it. Since McWilliam’s translation—solid as a block of Carrara marble—had an enormous distribution in schools throughout the Western hemisphere, it’s likely true that countless students came away from their one exposure to The Decameron thinking it’s somehow comparable to such of the author’s other works as Il Filostrato, or On the Genealogy of the Pagan Gods. Such a notion is ridiculous, of course.


Damnation by Janice Lee

Damnation by Janice Lee


Janice Lee’s latest novel, Damnation, may initially present itself as a work of “critical theory” in disguise. A rumination upon cinema—specifically, the collaborations of director Bela Tarr and novelist László Krasznahorkai—the book is more broadly concerned with the experience, in all its torpor and extravagance, of watching films. Though perhaps it is more accurate to say that Lee has performed here a sort of clinical study, demonstrating with a delicate obsessiveness the procedures of a self-medication whose prescription is obsessive film-watching. In actuality, however, this is a book that turns several faces to the reader.


Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont

Roth Unbound: A Writer and His Books by Claudia Roth Pierpont


t wasn’t until midway through the second chapter—fifteen pages that nimbly narrate Roth’s childhood and life before publication—that I realized I was reading a biography. You’ll forgive me for thinking otherwise before then. The marketing materials, again, are no help. “This is not a biography,” the blurb intones, “but something more rewarding: an attempt to understand a great writer through his art.” Pierpont studiously avoids calling the work a biography, noting only that “biography is important to some periods [of Roth’s career] more than to others and is used primarily as illumination.” But a biography it is, albeit one written with a striking lack of research.


Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D.O. Fagunwa

Forest of a Thousand Daemons by D.O. Fagunwa


From 1930 to 1939, a young man named Daniel Fagunwa worked as a teacher at the St. Andrew’s school in the town of Oyo in western Nigeria. When the education ministry of the British colony announced a literary contest, he entered a short novel called Ogboju Ode ninu Igbo Irunmale, literally “The Brave Hunter in the Forest of Four Hundred Spirits.” The first novel to be written in the Yoruba language, the book was published by The Church Missionary Society Press in 1938, when Fagunwa was around thirty-five. One of its early readers was a schoolboy who encountered it in class before his six years of formal education came to end in 1939. His name was Amos Tutuola.


Blinding Volume I: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu

Blinding Volume I: The Left Wing by Mircea Cărtărescu


Cărtărescu’s first volume, built around childhood memories and family stories of his protagonist, Mircea, provides vivid descriptions of Bucharest, a beloved city that emerges from a surreal landscape, whose future is uncertain. Yet it also weaves in dreams and memories, obscuring the lines between hallucinations and reality throughout. His prose reflects his work as a poet—his eye for color and texture, his predilection for striking imagery. At length, The Left Wing becomes a wildly imaginative, detailed cosmology, a search for metaphysical truth, an attempt at a religious doctrine that privileges creation and connection among beings and planes of existence.


The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys

The Hall of Uselessness by Simon Leys


Simon Leys is likely a name that is unknown to an American audience. He was for me. Not having heard of him forced me to approach The Hall of Uselessness as though it were a debut, even though Leys has been publishing essays and fiction for over forty years. He is based in Australia, where he settled thirty-five years after being born in Brussels as Pierre Ryckmans. Almost half of the essays in The Hall were originally published in either The New York Review of Books or The Monthly (the latter being a magazine in Australia that publishes work on a wide range of topics). And though many of the essays in The Hall are literary-centric, the book manages to cover very diverse terrain.


The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez

The Sound of Things Falling by Juan Gabriel Vásquez


Whereas Vásquez’s previous books probed the lesser-known dramas of in Colombia’s past, The Sound of Things Falling takes interest in a notorious and relatively recent period in the country’s history: the mayhem of the cartel years of the 1980s and 1990s, a period most Bogotanos would be happy to forget. In those decades, the country was in the grip of Pablo Escobar, whose power was matched by his flamboyant extravagance: the novel opens with the assassination, in 2009, of a hippopotamus, “a male the color of black pearls” that had escaped from the drug kingpin’s defunct private zoo, itself an otherworldly attraction frequented by teenagers playing hooky from school.


Cannonball by Joseph McElroy

Cannonball by Joseph McElroy


With Cannonball, McElroy returns to familiar themes of family relations and criminal/political intrigue, this time in the setting of the Iraq War. As in most McElroy novels, the story begins in the middle, a space between, the still moment at the top of a dive’s arc, “a slowness so divided it might never finish in your mind.” The narrator, Zach, a “slow on the uptake” Army photographer, is dispatched to a basement pool beneath one of Saddam’s liberated palaces in Baghdad.


Ancient History: A Paraphase by Joseph McElroy

Ancient History: A Paraphase by Joseph McElroy


Ancient History’s most unusual and distinctive feature may be its fusion of scientific discourse and the textures of American life. Concepts from geometry, vector-field theory, and anthropology animate a narrative exploration of friendship between the narrator and his childhood friends Al and Bob, spread over diverse locales and several decades. Dozens of neologisms solidify the register of these conversations, making for a powerfully strange reading experience. Anthroponoia, Americanolysis, ex-spatial-vectoral power, anthrotoponymy, Vectoral Dystrophy . . . if it weren’t for McElroy’s bravura, this book would be a failure.


My Poems Won’t Change the World: Selected Poems by Patrizia Cavalli

My Poems Won’t Change the World: Selected Poems by Patrizia Cavalli


Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli has become known for her lucid, supremely accessible work which lends itself well to translation. The themes which unify her work seem to center around the process of reimagining the domestic. In her writing, housework, childcare, traditionally feminine crafts (such as weaving), and relationships with men are topics that she inverts completely from cliché through playfulness and humor. My Poems Won’t Change The World was translated by a wide group of American poets: Mark Strand, Jorie Graham, Jonathan Galassi, Rosanna Warren, Geoffrey Brock, J. D. McClatchy, David Shapiro, and editor Gini Alhadeff—who spent the last five years working closely with the author on this volume—all contribute versions to this gathering of her work. It is a tribute to Cavalli that her voice transmits with such clarity, undampened by those of the notable poets who have rendered her work into English.


Uncollected Poems by R.S. Thomas

Uncollected Poems by R.S. Thomas


The latest volume, culled by the editors from newspapers, magazines and journals, spans Thomas’ sixty-year writing career. The earliest poem collected dates from 1939; the latest, from his final years and after. Almost absent from these fugitive pieces are Thomas’ signature arguments with God. With Geoffrey Hill, he may be the great embattled poet of faith from late in the twentieth century, but a reader new to Thomas would hardly know that from the Uncollected Poems. What to make of this is a puzzle.


Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara

Poems Retrieved by Frank O’Hara


There are several reasons why particular poems by a major American figure would linger in uncollected limbo for decades. In Poems Retrieved, a reissued Frank O’Hara collection edited by Don Allen, a wider audience is seeing the light of these works some 47 years post mortem.


Life and Times of Mr. S by Vivek Narayanan

Life and Times of Mr. S by Vivek Narayanan


What does it mean to be an Indian writer? Does it mean you’re writing in Hindi? Or Tamil? Or Bengali? Or any of the many dozens of languages that have produced high literary achievement? Does it mean you’ve grown up in India (like Rushdie, or Kipling), or live in India (like Arundhati Roy, or Ruth Prawar Jhabvala), or are of Indian descent (like Naipaul or Jhumpala Lahiri)? The question gets complicated very quickly, and fraught with competing interests. More to the point here, how does one identify oneself as an Indian writer, and then negotiate those choppy waters? Identity figures large in Life and Times of Mr. S, Narayanan’s second collection of poetry, after Universal Beach in 2006—but here the issue is less of a single identity than of shifting identities and of what is encountered in the sometimes numinous, sometimes agonizing spaces between selves.


The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen

The Kraus Project by Jonathan Franzen

While I understand the reasons for his fidelity, I find it a shame that Franzen didn’t intervene more through his translation. One of the most puzzling aspects of the project as a whole is why Franzen, who has repeatedly expressed disapproval of “difficult” writing, should want people to read Karl Kraus, whose style he variously describes as “deliberately hard,” “dense and intricately coded,” “an agreeable barrier to entry; it kept the uninitiated out.” My hope was that Franzen would use his translation to break down that barrier, providing us with an elucidating text that helps us to understand what Kraus was getting at. While the footnotes are helpful for understanding the historical context, particularly the scholar Paul Reitter’s excellent contributions, they rarely help us to get closer to Kraus’s meaning. The translation itself does nothing of the sort.


Rimbaud the Son by Pierre Michon

Rimbaud the Son by Pierre Michon


Especially exquisite is this new translation of Rimbaud the Son, whose conception of the famed young poet Arthur Rimbaud is decidedly Copernican: just as his Masters and Servants views five great artists from the perspectives of those in their orbits, so Rimbaud the Son describes not so much the poet as the gravitational effects he has on the lesser figures who revolve around him.


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2 comments to The Quarterly Conversation | Issue 34 | Winter 2014

  • Sawn

    Wow! James Purdy! I read all but his “Sleepers” novels in my late teens and early 20′s when copies of these strange books showed up in used book stores in the late 80′s and early 90′s (likely from the collections of men who had recently passed as victims of the plague). I have re-read both Eustace Chisolm and Elijah Thrush numerous times – severely neglected though probably among the greatest and most prescient novels of all time.

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