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

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


Interviews from Conversational Reading

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


  • Those Who Leave and Those Who Stay by Elena Ferrante September 16, 2014
    Few novelists have captured the rhythms and flow of life with the veracity of Elena Ferrante in her Neapolitan Novels. Following the friendship between Elena Greco and Lila Cerullo from childhood to old age, the tetralogy spans fifty years; over the course of that time, no emotion is too small, too dark, too banal to be recorded. No expense, so to speak, is […]
  • Trieste by Daša Drndić September 15, 2014
    As Drndić reiterates throughout the novel, “Behind every name there is a story.” And Haya Tedeschi’s story is draped in death. Born to a Jewish family that converted to Catholicism and tacitly supported the Fascists in Italy, Haya was a bystander to the Holocaust. She attended movies while Jews and partisans were transported to concentration camps; she pored […]
  • The Tree With No Name by Drago Jančar September 15, 2014
    At the opening of chapter 87—the first chapter found in The Tree with No Name—Janez Lipnik finds himself up a tree, shoeless, and lost in the Slovenian countryside. He makes his way to a house where he is taken in by a woman teacher who is waiting for her lover, a soldier. It becomes clear we are at the height of World War II. Soon after, we follow Lipnik […]
  • Kjell Askildsen, Selected Stories September 15, 2014
    Here, at the midpoint of his narrative, Bernhard, the affectless and purposeless protagonist of "The Unseen," experiences existential near-emancipation at dusk. This retreat toward obscurity in terse, direct language—thematic and stylistic markers of each work in the collection—comes immediately after Bernhard’s sister mentions her plans to enterta […]
  • Berlin Now by Peter Schneider September 15, 2014
    In his new book of essays, Berlin Now, Peter Schneider reveals himself as a gnarled Cold Warrior who has been stricken with many of the maladies common to his generation. With the specter of Communism exorcized, his new enemy is Islam. The book is a collection of short interlocking pieces introducing Anglophone readers to Berlin; it is not being published in […]
  • Paris by Marcos Giralt Torrente September 15, 2014
    In 1999, Marcos Giralt Torrente’s debut novel, Paris, was awarded the XVII Premio Herralde de Novela prize. Despite his success, it took fourteen years for Giralt’s work to appear in English, with the story collection The End of Love arriving in 2013. Now, this year sees the publication of two more books by Giralt: Paris, translated by Margaret Jull Costa, a […]
  • 10:04 by Ben Lerner September 15, 2014
    “It seemed that the [New Yorker] story—which was in part the result of my dealing with the reception of my novel—had been much more widely received than the novel itself,” says the narrator of Ben Lerner’s second novel, 10:04. Perhaps this narrator is Lerner himself—at one point he describes 10:04, within its own pages, as “neither fiction nor nonfiction but […]
  • Theories of Forgetting by Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    Lance Olsen’s Theories of Forgetting is a masterful work structured around Robert Smithson’s earthwork “The Spiral Jetty.” Olsen’s novel is comprised of three narrations, written each by a separate member of a family. The husband’s and wife’s texts progress in opposite directions across the book, with each page divided among these two inverted texts; though […]
  • An Interview with Lance Olsen September 15, 2014
    The most substantial may be that innovative fiction knows what it is, that someone like me could define it in any productive way, that innovative fiction might somehow be one thing, or somehow consistent through time and space. None of these is the case. That’s exactly what I find most exciting about writing it, reading it, thinking about it. Innovative fict […]
  • The Ants by Sawako Nakayasu September 15, 2014
    In The Ants, we receive a study of existence through ants. That is, there are ants everywhere, ants substituted in every segment of the landscape, yet their behavior seems to reveal something altogether human. Too human. The ants are crushed and disappointed. They are warm and many. They are involved in gang wars and live inside carrot cake. The unique quali […]

Wonder by Hugo Claus

Hugo ClausThe deeper I get into this year’s Best Translated Book Award longlist, the clearer it is becoming how much deeper a list this is than last year. After a first reading, it was fairly clear which had a shot at winning on last year’s list and which were inferior, but as I read more and more of the longlist this year I’m realizing that I’m going to have to go back and look through most of these titles carefully to set them in order.

Wonder by Hugo Claus is yet another strong title, one that I can hardly believe received no notice whatsoever upon publication in the traditional U.S. literary press, other than a Publishers Weekly capsule review. (Although do check out the fine review/essay at The National, which has distinguished itself in my eyes for it’s high quality literary coverage.) This book is a little more difficult to write up in short form than some of the other titles I’ve discussed lately because there isn’t really a dazzling conceit to the book. It’s simply about a man driven insane by the Nazi legacy in Belgium. (And it’s interesting to note that this is the second straight year the BTB longlist features a European title that deals centrally with collaborationist war guilt; last year was The Darkroom of Damocles, a fine book in its own right, from the Dutch author Willem Frederik Hermans.) It somewhat reminds me of Senselessness since there is so much overlap among the themes, the claustrophobic writing style, and, quite frankly, the outright mastery of language (though the narrators are very different personalities).

As to the language, Claus’s abilities are astonishing, so much so that I’m eager to read his poetry (of which he wrote over 1,000 pages). I don’t want to give away too many plot points, but it becomes clear fairly early on that the book we are reading is the writing of a mild-mannered middle school teacher trying to reconstruct a series of events that was sparked by an odd confrontation with a ravishing woman at a masked ball and that ended with him unclothed and raving in the street.

It’s clear that as the narrator writes this book he still isn’t nearly cured (nor does he seem to have a firm grip on the events in question), and so, among other tools Claus uses to evoke the decayed mental state of the book’s author, he frequently shifts between the first-, second-, and third-person. That’s only a small part of the gymnastics going on over here. So much of this book rests on implication and innuendo (which is wholly appropriate to a book in which you’re not meant to ever be sure how much of it is a hallucination), yet it hardly ever feels like Claus is not getting his point across. These are the kind of rich, labyrinthine sentences that can be read very quickly if you’re eager to get through the plot (which is quite tense and gripping), but that also reward a second, slow look by yielding up all kind of revelations and ponderables.

Here’s one of many fine passages:

Back outside, where the light was still needle-sharp and a hot wind of dust and needles had begun to blow, the teacher felt his eyes tearing again. The old man [a Nazi sympathizer] looked questioningly at the boy [the teacher's sidekick] with his myopic gaze and halted. A superannuated harlequin, a terrifying puppet-show villain, he began to coo, but then a low croak emerged from his ribs, which he was clasping, and turned into the words: Precisely, just so, such is inevitably the effect the memory of Crabbe [the longed-for neo-Nazi messiah] has on his followers. Dear me, dear me, he added, pressing down in the region of his liver, his voice dying away. The teacher wiped his eyes with two fingers (which he knew to be dirty) but got no help from the boy at this strange juncture: the boy just stood there smiling.

“Tell me, how are things in Holland?” the man said.

“Things?”

“The movement.”

“Right, Father, what are things like?” the boy asked.

Furious, humiliated, the teacher shrugged.

“Precisely,” said the old man . . .

You can see here the kind of ambiguity and obscurity in which the entire book exists. The Nazi completely misreads the reasons behind the teacher’s emotions (which remain ambiguous to us as well–just the dust, or something more?), and the teacher never quite resolves the dilemma of pretending to go with it (collaborate) or reveal that he is not one of them. Here as elsewhere, the boy acts as a sort of mischievous conscience prodding the teacher toward what he should do with his own two-faced remarks. On a line-by-line level, I very much like the “superannuated harlequin, a terrifying puppet-show villain,” which wonderfully gets at the mix of comedy and menace this aging Nazi must exude.

At the end of the day, though Wonder certainly does deal with issues of collaboration and post-war Nazism, it felt to me like the book was more engaged with literary issues than thematic ones. That’s to say that Claus’s investigation into plot, language, and structure was more penetrating and in-depth than his treatment of the issues he raises in the novel. I think I prefer Darkroom of Damocles for insight into the moral questions surrounding collaboration and postwar justice, whereas Wonder looks at these matters on a much more individual scale, trying to find a proper literary language with which to approach the state of a person wracked with this kind of guilt (though what the narrator did during the war, if anything, remains a mystery).

I would very much like to check out The Sorrow of Belgium, reputed to be Claus’s masterpiece, and also reputed to deal with the moral issues raised by the war and the resistance in a much more direct manner.

One last notable thing about Wonder: it contains a rather insignificant allusion to the acts perpetrated upon the native inhabitants of the Congo under the leadership of King Leopold II. I mention this only because in 1962, when Wonder was published, this was certainly not something that was much discussed–or even known–in Belguim, making it noteworthy that Claus would include such an allusion in his book.

More from Conversational Reading:

  1. Pop Culture Aesthetics Dan picks up something from Unbridled Books publisher Fred Ramey: Recently, while trying to read a novel that had graced the independent best-seller lists for...
  2. Japan's Murakami Problem Emily Parker on why Murikami’s fiction’s relationship to Japan’s imperial past: Yet while the historical sections of "The Wind-Up Bird Chronicle" riveted the attention of...
  3. Mitchell Interview David Mitchell, on why he chose to make his fourth novel about a 13-year-old boy: OK, I wanted to map what I think is an...
  4. Nobel Amazon Watch Okay, Nobel winner Elfriede Jelinek has officially “cha-ching”ed. Here’s a breakdown of her current Amazon sales ranks: The Piano Teacher: 23 Lust: 50 Women as...
  5. The Buddha Boy I remember maybe about a year ago I read this AP story about some incredible Buddha-kid in Nepal who had been sitting under a tree...

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