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 […]

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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