Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Heaven and Hell and Iceland

Jón Kalman Stefánsson’s intensely immersive novel Heaven and Hell (translator: Philip Roughton; MacLehose Press, 2010) tells of a nameless boy’s confrontation with death in an Icelandic fishing station and of his subsequent perilous journey overland to convey the news to the nearest village – and to return the book responsible, in part, for that death. Stefánsson divides his novel into two sections, each framed by a brief address from the dead that places the novel’s events some 100 years in the past. Heaven and Hell has an almost inevitable intensity; an isolated fishing community wedged between sheer cliffs and dangerous seas, tiny boats on an immense, icy polar ocean, and a sudden, howling storm are hardly elements that could fail to produce drama (nor does the book’s title suggest subtlety, for that matter). But if one expects only a stereotypically epic tale of human struggles against the sea, one might look elsewhere. Despite its dramatic elements, Heaven and Hell proves a surprisingly quiet, understated novel, in which even the transition from life to death comes as often as not with a whimper, not a bang. As in many winter novels, ice, snow and isolation conspire to crystallize and concentrate the action, and the novel has an intimacy and muffled resonance like the sound of one’s own footsteps walking through fresh snow. While technically the story unfolds during April, its setting - Iceland's wild Western Fjords region – still remains frozen and at the mercy of winter’s harsh vestiges, and the boy’s encounter with these elements is no less an envelopment in blinding winter than that of the children lost in the blizzard in Adalbert Stifter’s Rock Crystal.

As a meditation on death (without any intention on my part, this is the second such work I’ve read this month, following Laurent Gaudé’s La Porte des Enfers, making me wonder if this is the kind of book one to which one is subconsciously drawn when one reaches fifty), Heaven and Hell seems not so much a gesture of remembrance of specific persons, but a call to keep alive in memory the sacrifices made by a people on whose efforts an entire country was raised, whole human settlements made possible by an economy largely built on “the bones of cod.” It’s an acknowledgement, beyond the mere stone markers of the graveyard, of a people’s labor to find a place in the world and establish a community in the face of calamitous forces of nature.

As I read Heaven and Hell I kept flashing on several other works, including Thornton Wilder’s Our Town and Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood, in which the living and dead of a small town co-exist in close proximity and in which the transitory nature of life is backdropped by both the ever-present possibility of death and an acute, overarching awareness of deep time on a scale extending far into the past. This snapshot sense of a community carrying on a way of life and death through generations is also enhanced by Stefánsson’s presenting the characters encountered by the boy at the story’s center in a manner that emphasizes passage and succession. Characters who appear in the beginning of the novel slip into the past or into death, fall away as ghosts or memories, while new characters emerge to join those with whom the boy, an orphan on the cusp of adulthood, has crossed paths - for the most part glancingly - in his brief life.  

I found myself reading Heaven and Hell with the kind of concentrated attention to individual words and to syntax that the demands of poetry, more often than prose, put upon a reader. What marks the language in Heaven and Hell is not only its intense lyricism – and certain passages are starkly beautiful – but the compressive complexity of Stefánsson’s sentences, which can achieve a sort of concentrated, vertical integration of the present and past, interior thought and exterior observation, a juxtaposition of day-to-day physical artifacts with unrelenting existential questions that irrepressibly well up in the mind – sometimes all within a single sentence. Around what is essentially a simple story of a young person coming face-to-face with death and his having to decide whether or not continuing into adulthood is worthwhile, the novel manages to compress so much - layers and layers grafted onto brief scenes that evoke a whole culture, a sociology of human interactions, a history of a métier, of a fishing community’s relationships with one another, with their country, their god, their history, their deaths - that one scarcely notices that the action of the novel has unfolded over a mere three days.

The clearly delineated central story that threads its way through Stefánsson’s multi-faceted prose gives Heaven and Hell something of the aspect of a folk tale, and brought to mind Halldór Laxness’ Independent People (the sole Laxness novel I’ve read), obviously because of the Icelandic setting but also due to a similarity with Laxness’ quality of appearing to be making new tracks in an old road, of reinventing a popular history consciously rooted in the Icelandic sagas. Reading Heaven and Hell provided a great excuse for getting out my Penguin copy of The Sagas of Icelanders (any excuse for hauling out this book is a good one). Opening it at random I came across a passage that might easily have come from Heaven and Hell: “When they were ready to put to sea, high tide was in the afternoon, and since they had to wait for it they did not set out until late in the evening. A wild southwesterly gale got up, against the current of the tide, and the sea grew very rough in the fjord, as often happens. In the end their ship sank beneath them, and they were all lost at sea.” For all their complexity and frequent poignancy, Stefánsson’s sentences and style often echo the reportorial, matter of fact tone of a passage such as this.

But just as Laxness’ novel stands in a modernist relation to the sagas, Stefánsson’s novel stands in a contemporary relation to Laxness. As in many contemporary novels, Heaven and Hell contains a self-conscious meditation on language and literature, in this case on its power to console, enlighten, distract, perhaps alter the course of one’s life – even lead to death. This gently meta-fictional aspect is exemplified by the central role played by John Milton’s “Paradise Lost;” a finely bound edition of an Icelandic translation of the poem, in fact, helps propel the novel’s plot. The narrative also contains repeated moments in which the efforts to communicate through the word - from a few lines snatched from a great poem, to dictated love letters, to the final words of a dying mother and down to the most tentative, fragmented scribbles - stand out like heroic, miraculous assertions of the fact that one is alive, challenges issued to the threatening, savage caprices of the natural world through the human capacity to utter or scratch onto paper an affirmation, however humble, of both existence and of the human bonds that hold people together. But Stefánsson hardly romanticizes this capacity. Literature, writing, speech can alter the world, yes; and that, of this constitutive human ability, is about all one can say for sure.

The cod have no interest in any words, and yet have swum nearly unchanged through the seas for 120 million years. Does this tell us something about language? We might not need words to survive; on the other hand, we do need words to live.

In one scene, the boy can only seem to make sense of the newness of the world in which he finds himself by experiencing the awestruck, abrupt thought, “I’m inside a novel!” - which, of course, he is – and in which, of course, we are, immersed in our reading of it, our seeking in it some new way of structuring the world, finding in it, perhaps, intimations of the sublime or at least a deepened appreciation for what words may accomplish. And if in Stefánsson’s novel the smallest tatters of language can impact, alter, and even take or give a life, then the cumulative effect of the splendid language of Heaven and Hell makes for a powerful, affecting, and memorable book indeed. 

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Korean Variations

 Here is something of a treasure trove of short fiction out of Korea about which I become more enthusiastic with each volume that I read: The Portable Library of Korean Literature.  Published by Jimoondang Press in Seoul, the PLKL consists of more than 25 pocket-sized books, each about 100 pages in length. A brief preface in each book explains:

The Portable Library of Korean Literature introduces readers around the world to the depth and breadth of a vibrant literary tradition that heretofore has been little known outside of Korea. These small books, each devoted to a single writer, will be appreciated for their originality, for their universality, and for their broad range of styles and themes. The goal of The Portable Library of Korean Literature is to bring Korean creative writing into the mainstream of world literature, where it deserves to be, by making Korean literature accessible to a wide audience. This is achieved by thoughtful selection, careful translation, and judicious editing

I can’t add much to that except to affirm what it says and offer my unalloyed support of the PLKL’s goal. I might also add that each volume contains either a novella or two or three short stories drawn from modern and contemporary Korean literature. The oldest selections I’ve read date from the 1930’s, the most recent from within the last 10 years. At the risk of appearing even more of a dilettante than I already am – knowing little to nothing about Korean literature, culture, or history, and also conscious that any collection can be skewed editorially, for any number of reasons, to exclude exceptional writers or offer a particular vision of what constitutes literature worth promoting – I still feel confident in recommending these books to anyone who appreciates engaging, imaginative, and outstanding fiction.

I stumbled upon the PLKL a few years ago thanks to France’s weekly Courrier International newspaper, which had published a series of “tear-out” supplements of short fiction from around the world. Each story impressed me, but I was dazzled by a selection from Korea (to my immense frustration, I can neither find my copy of the story nor, even worse, remember its title or author or seem to locate them searching Courrier’s on-line archives). When a subsequent issue of the paper featured a glowing article on another Korean writer, Gong Ji-Young, I was determined to have a look at what might be going on over there. I tracked down a slim volume of Gong’s work translated into English as Human Decency (translators Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton, Kim Miza and Suzanne Crowder Han), which turned out to be one of the volumes of the PLKL. Out of curiosity, I picked up another in the series off an adjacent shelf in the library, Kim Young-Ha’s Photo Shop Murder (translator, Jason Rhodes). I greatly enjoyed both books and made a mental note to check out further volumes of the PLKL in the future.

Recently, I had occasion to think again of the PLKL, so I picked out four additional titles at random and fairly devoured them in an afternoon. What the PLKL preface says is true: the offerings represent a vibrant literature of widely varying themes and styles. I enjoyed each volume greatly, and, while not surprised by this variety, I was surprised by the consistent high quality of the selections. Though I would recommend all of these volumes, of the six I was particularly impressed by Kim Yu-Jeong’s carefully crafted, folktale-like stories in The Camellias, reminiscent in some ways of Saki’s biting humor and sharply conceived, situational vignettes; Kim Young-Ha’s clever and memorable take on the murder mystery genre in Photo Shop Murder (Kim appears to be one of the few contemporary Korean writers whose novels are available in English); Hwang Soon-Won’s “Bibari” in the collection A Man, an unusually evocative tale of a frail young refugee’s infatuation with a shellfish diver on Korea’s Jeju island; and Pak Wanseo’s riveting, starkly unsentimental novella Three Days in That Autumn, the story of a victim of a war-time rape who seeks her revenge by becoming an abortionist.

It would be absurd to try to draw any inferences about Korean literature as a whole from my reading of these six short volumes, but I have been impressed with the consistently mature, grounded quality of the writing. This does not appear to be a literature of cheap effects, abstract experimentation or trivial concerns. Nearly all of these books seem to deal with one or another of the great shocks to Korea over the past century: the Japanese occupation, the Korean War and American military presence, the brutal repression of intellectuals and students by the dictatorship, and, more recently, Korea’s emergence as a consumer society and the attendant loosening of tradition. This is not to say, however, that the works lack humor.

Courrier International’s hints that Korean literature may offer a number of literary treasures has been more than borne out by my tentative explorations within the Portable Library of Korean Literature. While I’m certain the PLKL represents a mere smattering of what’s to be found in Korean fiction and only the slightest hint of what today’s writers may be producing, I’m finding it a great introduction to a literature of which I have been until now, regrettably, almost completely ignorant. 

Monday, January 17, 2011

Interlude in French

I recently sped through three novels written in French during the past 10 years and offer below some brief reactions and comments (any translations, unless otherwise indicated, are my own):

Faire L’Amour (Making Love) by Jean-Philippe Toussaint (2002)
(an English translation by Linda Coverdale is available from the Dalkey Archive, and I've borrowed her translation of the title)

Belgian writer Toussaint has been on my radar screen for sometime. I seem to run across his books everywhere (nearly all of his work has been published in English, most of it by the Dalkey Archive), and my general sense from the little I know about him is that he’s one of the more respected young francophone writers. In Faire L’Amour, a novel about the dissolution of a love affair (and apparently the first of what’s come to be known as Toussaint’s “Marie” trilogy), one knows from the first line that something is far from right:

“I had had a vial filled with hydrochloric acid and I kept it on me at all times, with the idea of one day throwing it into someone’s face. “

This shocking initial note of potential violence serves as the high-tension wire on which the action of Faire L’Amour is strung. Or perhaps I should say the lack of action, since the novel’s two main characters seem paralyzed in self-absorption, entrenched in banalities, and – though aware their relationship has come to an end – remain mired in a passive attraction/repulsion as though some tacky, gooey substance keeps them from separating entirely. The first part of the novel unfolds over a single long winter night in Tokyo, where the couple have just arrived from Paris, jet-lagged and emotionally drained from the awareness of their impending dissolution. More alone than together even when together, the couple sleepwalks through the disorienting nightscape of Tokyo (the novel shares the insomniac atmosphere of Sophia Coppola’s film “Lost in Translation” as well as its view of Tokyo as alternately mesmerizing and estranging). Meanwhile, a series of earthquakes and aftershocks underscores the upheaval and fracturing of the characters’ personal lives. Toussaint’s taut, crystalline composition has the precision of an engineer, like something built by a hardware designer. This self-consciousness of style is enhanced by Toussaint’s having captured a sense of a generation for whom the world has shrunk, where connection by technology is a given but actual communication is not, leaving them adrift and passive in a cold and blinking electronic night while the trembling earth beneath them warns of the threat that everything could disappear in an instant.

La Porte des Enfers (The Gate to the Kingdom of the Dead*), by Laurent Gaudé (2008) (not yet translated into English) (*“Enfer,” the French word for “hell,” is distinct from the plural “enfers,” which specifically denotes Hades, the mythological underworld of the dead)

I’d never before heard of Prix-Goncourt-winning author Laurent Gaudé (nor had the person who gave me this book, who bought it entirely based on the cover blurb). The novel takes place in Naples; chapters alternate between 1980 (the year of a massive earthquake in the region) and 2002. From early in the novel, in which a six-year old boy is killed during a gun battle between rival gangs, Gaudé’s Naples is easily recognizable as that of Roberto Saviano’s gritty and gruesome piece of investigative journalism, Gomorrah. However, the novel takes an unexpectedly supernatural turn when the boy’s father is haphazardly thrown together with a transsexual prostitute, a street-wise bartender, a radical, elderly priest, and a drunken mystic who claims to have found an entry into the underworld – and thus a means for the father to venture into hell in search of his son. While such a histrionic plot sounds like it might be easily lend itself more to popular, mass-market fiction, Gaudé is a highly talented writer, and La Porte des Enfers becomes a serious mediation on the intersection of life and death, a new iteration of both the Orpheus myth and Dante’s “Inferno” (in a brief afterword Gaudé states that he wrote the novel to memorialize “my dead” – his friends and family members who’ve passed on). His sensitive, completely unsentimental depiction of the parents’ obliterating grief and rage is raw and grueling. Mixing history and myth, Gaudé offers up a number of fascinating accounts of attempts by the living to interact with the dead and, most effectively, of the myriad ways the living can be more dead than alive. His realism immerses one in the streets of Naples to the point where one can follow much of the action using Google Maps (this may well be the first time an alleged door to the underworld can actually be located using Google Street View). While I admired Gaudé’s talent – one can’t help but appreciate the hell he must have descended into in order to write La Porte des Enfers and his gesture of memorial - I can’t say that I loved his novel. Several scenes of violence struck me as entirely gratuitous, and above all, I found distasteful the unmeditated vengeance fantasy aspect of the novel (vengeance being my least favorite theme).

L’Échappée Belle (Beautiful Escape*), by Anna Gavalda (serialized 2001; revised by the author and published in book form 2009) (An English translation by Alison Anderson – French Leave - is forthcoming in April 2011 from Europa Editions) (*”L’Échappée Belle” literally means “the beautiful escape,” but also has a relevant idiomatic meaning in French of “a close call” or “close shave.” “Échappées Belles” is also the title of a popular French television series about pleasant travel destinations).

Of these three works in French, the one I least expected to like was also the one I enjoyed the most. I’d never given much thought to reading Anna Gavalda; I’d seen her books for sale in airports and train stations, and assumed they were probably slight, sentimental, commercial novels. My bad. In L’Échappée Belle, I discovered a greatly talented writer whose humor subverted expectations by being marked by what seems to me the rarest of elements in contemporary French literature: joy. The story of L’Échappée Belle is simple: three adult siblings brought together at a marriage none wishes to attend decide to skip out of the ceremony entirely and track down their fourth sibling for a stolen weekend of reconnection and recreation (quite literally, a “re-creation” of the childhood relations they shared). Gavalda’s characters are memorable, her writing clear and sophisticated. I remarked to a friend that L’Échappée Belle seemed to employ a much wider vocabulary than most contemporary French novels I’d read, as I seemed to be spending an unusual amount of time with the dictionary. The friend said she’d once seen Gavalda interviewed on television and was struck not only by her affability and modesty, but also by her rather bashful revelation that she could write anywhere - so long as she had a thesaurus with her. Gavalda reminds me a bit of Ann Tyler, but with a wit and political astuteness that moves her perhaps closer to Margaret Atwood. Of these three French language novels, Gavalda’s "beautiful escape" is, ironically perhaps, the only one of the three not to escape off to an international setting and the only one to acknowledge, even tacitly, actual political issues unfolding today in France. Jean-Philippe Toussaint may be better at characterizing the emotional gestalt of our times, but Gavalda, in one brief passage of L’Échappée Belle, questions and captures beautifully the frustration of a generation’s docile failure to confront reactionism with the force of indignation rooted in the openness, sensitivity and social concern to which many have consecrated their entire lives (I thought of this scene – in which the narrator recounts her regret at having let a bigoted remark about immigrants go unchallenged – while reading “Indignez-Vous!,” the 30-page call to indignation published this past December by 93-year old former Resistance fighter and diplomat Stéphane Hessel – a pamphlet that has become an overnight sensation in France and has sold nearly a million copies). My only disappointment in L’Échappée Belle is an embarrassingly petty and entirely personal one: Gavalda's inclusion of yet another example of what I can’t help thinking of as the “Mondo Cane syndrome” - that common coping response, when faced with an overwhelmingly incomprehensible, chaotic, and hostile world, of simply acquiring a dog. But I’m hardly one to criticize; we all have our escapes and means of coping (some of us have even opted to respond to the difficulties of the world by submerging ourselves in novels). Fortunately, L’Échappée Belle reminds all of us escapees that escape and denial are not the same thing, and that escape – particularly when stolen from the confines of hollow obligation and conservative social strictures – can be beautiful.   

Friday, January 7, 2011

Late Night Thoughts After Reading Edith Grossman's "Why Translation Matters"

Only when fortuitous personal circumstances essentially forced me to become serious about learning French did I realize the many splendid paths that knowing a second language would open, not least of which was the one that led into literature in French. I began to discover a number of wonderful writers previously unknown to me: Jean Giono, Boris Vian, Albert Londres, Daniel Pennac, Patrick Modiano, François Cheng, Amélie Nothomb, J. M. G. LeClézio, Emmanuel Carrère, and numerous others from the francophone world beyond France, such as Belgium’s Henry Bauchau and Morocco’s Tahar Ben Jalloun.

An even greater revelation, however, was in learning of many authors from around the world whose works had been translated into French but were difficult or impossible to find in English. While the paucity of translated literature published in the United States each year has earned it notoriety as the “three percent” problem, France – with a strong and respected tradition of translation, weighs in with a percentage closer to 20%. My knowledge of French meant that I suddenly had access to a vast new source of literature translated from other languages. An entire world opened before me as I began to find writers from Japan, Scandinavia, Italy, Greece, the Middle East, China, and many other places around the globe whose work simply wasn’t available in English, or available in only highly limited selections. It was thus, for example, that I had my first exposure to a young South American writer named Roberto Bolaño, whose Étoile Distante I picked up in French after reading an article about him and being surprised to find none of his work in English (nearly a year later, By Night in Chile would be the first Bolaño work to arrive in English translation).

Below I highlight several works I read in French and wished to see translated into English. To date, only one of these works has appeared in English; the others wait too patiently for someone to take up the task. (Translations of the titles are my own; my apologies to more adept translators who may certainly quibble with my amateur choices):

Un Roi Sans Divertissement, by Jean Giono (France)
(A King Without Diversions)
Originally in French; untranslated into English

Jean Giono occupies a place in French literature that merits him the widest possible readership. North Point Press issued several of his works in the United States in the 1980’s, and readers may be aware of him through the perennial gift book for the gardener in the family, The Man Who Planted Trees, or perhaps from the 1995 film “The Horseman on the Roof” based on one of his best-known novels, but Giono’s work still remains in woefully limited availability in English. His rapturous novels of life in the French countryside mesh spiritual and moral questions with the marvels of the natural world. His 1947 novel Un Roi Sans Divertissement - perhaps the highlight of my reading year when I read it in 2007 –dates from Giono’s late period, technically the first in an ambitious projected cycle of novels meant to encompass the human condition. Divided into three linked tales and stretched over five years in the life of police captain Langlois, Un Roi Sans Divertissement takes place in a remote area of Isère in southeastern France, though Giono quite explicitly asserted that the geography of these works of his late career was a fictional creation. The first section follows the search for a serial killer in an isolated, snowbound rural area – an unusual topic for Giono, to say the least. There’s some suggestion of a pot-boiler aspect to the novel, apparently intended to attract American publishers, but there’s no attendant deficiency in the quality of the literature. Un Roi Sans Divertissement contains perhaps the most exquisite descriptions of autumn and winter I’ve ever read. Readers from the English-speaking world would do well to flock to the streets to protest the lack of a translation.

Suite Française, by Irène Némirovsky (France)
(Suite Française – it can’t be improved upon with a translated title)
Originally in French; English translation by Sandra Smith published in 2006

By now the world has discovered Némirovsky and, more significantly, begun to give her work its proper due. Suite Française, her major work, now appears in English even in an Everyman’s Library edition and consists of two linked novellas (of five interrelated novellas Némirovsky planned, she only completed these two prior to her arrest and subsequent execution in Auschwitz). Hundreds of works of literature wrestle with the horrors of World War II and the world’s having allowed Nazism to emerge, and while many are exceptionally powerful works, none that I’ve read has quite captured, as Némirovsky has, the quiet, docile manner by which ordinary people acquiesced to fascism. This is not a novel of the camps or of the battlefield; its focus on ordinary persons allows it to transcend the specifics of WWII fascism in France to serve as a potent warning of the ease with which people can go along and end up complicit with the most heinous of fascist atrocities.

Amrikanli: Un Automne à San Francisco, by Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt)  
(Amrikanli: An Autumn in San Francisco)
French translation from Arabic by Richard Jacquemond; untranslated into English

If there were one work I read in French that might serve as the poster child of the “three percent” problem, it’s this 2003 novel from Egyptian author Sonallah Ibrahim (published in French translation in November, 2005). I could argue that some other works on this list may be more deserving, but the sheer inconceivability of the lack of an English translation is unmatched, given Amrikanli’s American setting (San Francisco) and its thematic treatment of the collision of Middle Eastern and American cultures in the contemporary world. Ibrahim is routinely viewed as one of Egypt’s most significant writers. Shortly after Amrikanli’s publication in the Middle East (where it became a bestseller), Ibrahim caused a scandal by publically refusing Egypt’s top literary prize, declaring illegitimate the power of a corrupt and oppressive Egyptian government to bestow the award. I tracked down the book in France after a friend mentioned hearing of an Arabic writer who’d written about San Francisco. I took up Amrikanli assuming it to be a travelogue; only several pages in did I realize it was in fact a novel. The story uses a fairly conventional conceit of the stranger in a strange land, following the almost picaresque adventures of visiting professor of Egyptian history Shukri as he navigates the cultural landscape of San Francisco. While the novel takes place in 1998 as the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal is unfolding, it nonetheless inhabits the shadow of the destroyed twin towers and speaks, indirectly, to post-9/11 U.S.-Arab relations. The large amount of contemporary Egyptian history woven into the narrative is a welcome education for those of us ignorant of what is arguably the most important nation in the Middle East. I found Amrikanli mordantly funny in places, and a complete surprise that changed forever my embarrassingly small conception of contemporary Middle Eastern writing. That it remains almost completely unknown in the United States eight years after its publication seems little short of disgraceful, and only serves to underscore Ibrahim’s implicit criticism of American insularity and self-absorption. And while the optimal moment for an English translation of this novel may perhaps be past, American readers, in particular, deserve the opportunity to engage Ibrahim’s caustic, funny, eye-opening and important work.

La Forêt des Renards Pendus, by Arto Paasilinna (Finland)
(The Forest of Hanged Foxes)
French translation from Finnish by Anne Colin du Terrail; untranslated into English

I don’t know of any writer quite like Finland’s Arto Paasilinna, at least I know of no other writer with a national stature like Paasilinna. His novels come with such regularity as to be regarded almost as an annual cause for celebration in Finland (I’m starting to join that ritual, and find myself reading one of his works about once a year). Like Jean Giono, Paasilinna expresses a deep connection with nature. He is also capable of tremendous wit - subtle, playful and often absurdist - and of crafting completely indelible images. Of the handful of Paasilinna works that I’ve read, La Forêt des Renards Pendus has been the most arresting and enjoyable, a sustained blend of black humor with an appreciation for the mysteries of the natural world that is rare in the literature of any country. Like many of his novels, this one takes place in  Finland’s frozen far north, where a thief on the run and a drunken military commander deserting his responsibilities wind up sharing a camp in a remote boreal forest with - as often turns up in Paasilinna’s work – an especially sentient representative from nature, in this case a clever fox.

Parfum de Glace, by Yoko Ogawa (Japan)
(My initial literal translation of this title as Ice Cream Flavor seems to miss completely the tone of the novel; I'd always privately thought of the title as Perfume of Ice; I think a better translation of the French might be Frozen Scent. In any event, I will be curious to see what title the novel will be given when it's finally translated into English, and would be grateful if anyone has any insight into the original Japanese title, Kōritsui ta kaori, 凍りついた香り).
French translation from Japanese by Rose-Marie Makino-Fayolle; untranslated into English

At the recommendation of a French friend, I picked up a short Yoko Ogawa work – La Petite Pièce Hexagonale (The Small Hexagonal Chamber) - and quickly became hooked on Ogawa’s elegiac, crystalline, intimately haunting novels of separation and loneliness, filled with imaginative, lyric imagery. Her characters may be isolated individuals inhabiting melancholic landscapes, but they are also seekers whose intellectual and emotional curiosity draw them towards epiphanies and discoveries, often of exceptional beauty, at those intersections where solitude and connection collide. Fortunately, Ogawa’s fiction has begun to be published in English; however, Parfum de Glace has yet to appear.

Comme Tous Les Après-Midi, by Zoyâ Pirzâd (Iran)
(Just Like Every Afternoon)
French translation from Persian by Christophe Balaÿ; untranslated into English

I’m usually not much of a fan of short fiction, but I enjoyed this collection of stories. It’s of a genre that I think highly important: fiction that depicts the lives of women who might otherwise remain invisible. Many of Pirzâd’s short pieces are focused, affecting glimpses into the everyday domestic lives of women in Tehran, including a moving story in which a housewife dreams all day of writing down a story she’s thought of but, prevented from doing so by onerous household responsibilities, manages just a simple paragraph she triumphantly steals from the one moment of the day she finds to be her own. In another vignette, two men face one another on park benches while eating their lunches, both of them having made observation of others into a sort of pastime. It’s a nice conceit: two people, each playing the role of the writer, each assuming incorrectly that the world isn’t observing right back. A more unusual story concerning a reported invasion of locusts seems a thin political metaphor, but is successful nonetheless in delineating how propaganda can inspire a whole people to alarm, panic and drastic overreaction, a sort of mini “War of the Worlds.” Pirzâd’s novel Le Goût Âpre des Kakis (The Bitter Taste of Persimmons) won the 2009 Courrier International Award for international literature.

L’Art de la Joie, by Goliarda Sapienza (Italy)
(The Art of Joy)
French translation from Italian by Nathalie Castagné; untranslated into English

Despite a rather mundane title, Sapienza’s massive novel is a memorable, engaging work of 20th century Italian literature that deserves wide readership and recognition. Published posthumously – Sapienza died in 1996 – this epic Sicilian novel begins in 1900 and follows its main character, Modesta, across nearly the entire span of the 20th century in Sicily. While I was disappointed by the relative tedium of the final chapters of the novel, the lengthy opening chapter, a simply stunning rendering of Modesta’s difficult childhood in rural poverty, can almost stand alone as a novel in itself and was some of the finest writing I read in all of 2005, when the novel first appeared in French.  

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Reflections on a Year of Reading: 2010

I’ve had a spectacular year of literary discovery. It seems only fitting that the setting of the last novel I read in 2010 is the same as that of the first novel I read in 2010:  Lisbon, a city that has haunted me since my first visit there just before the year started. Pascal Mercier’s Train de Nuit Pour Lisbonne opened the year; another French translation, of Antonio Tabucchi’s Requiem, his sole novel written in Portuguese, closed it. Requiem called out to me my last day in Paris via its cover: a detail of a cat I recognized as being from one of the marvelous azulejos adorning the walls of Lisbon’s Palais de La Fronteira. Many of the books I’ve read this year seem to have chosen me rather than the other way around, or have seemed to follow me about, Tabucchi’s work being a case in point. It’s not unusual, I know, for a book about a certain city to mention those same places one has visited oneself. But the experiences of the narrator in Requiem often paralleled aspects of my own visit to Lisbon with unusual particularity: an appreciation for the little garden outside the bar of the museum on Janelas Verdes near Eça de Quieros’ home; a shared fixation on a specific detail in Bosch’s “Temptation of Saint Anthony” of a naked couple flying upon a fish; an eerily similar experience in a modernist restaurant on one of the cais along the Tagus. For this reason I found Tabucchi’s novel infectively disquieting, as though his hallucination intersected my own at times. But I’m beginning to accept and anticipate that strange encounters between reality and fiction will continue to occur - in the city of Fernando Pessoa perhaps more strangely than elsewhere…

Highlights of this past reading year:

The hands-down winner must surely be Miklós Bánffy’s Transylvania trilogy: They Were Counted, They Were Found Wanting, and They Were Divided. Coming to the end of the final volume felt akin to coming up from a lengthy exploration under the surface of some ether-clear sea, a quiet immersion of sustained wonder at the world to be found there. But there were an exceptional number of other tremendous finds: Terry Andrews’ The Story of Harold (about which I hope to write at more length later to contribute what I can to keep this utterly unique, out-of-print American novel from vanishing forever from sight); Javier Marias’ absorbing magnum opus Your Face Tomorrow, finished at last; the quirky, strangely moving nonsense poems of Christian Morgenstern; the peripatetic Romanian writer Panaït Istrati, a collection of whose work almost literally jumped off a library shelf onto my head (and in any case succeeded gloriously in penetrating it, to my enduring gratitude and delight); Patrick Fermor’s sumptuously written adventures through the heart of Europe; Thomas Bernhard’s mesmerizing concatenation of ideas in Correction; an unexpected but much appreciated introduction to the profoundly talented, morbidly funny Beryl Bainbridge in The Bottle Factory Outing; Stephen Benatar’s fabulously deranging camp horror story Wish Her Safe at Home; Eça de Quieros’ rich, deep and deeply satisfying masterpiece, The Maias (Lisbon again); a reluctant finish to the last of Earl Derr Biggers’ Charlie Chan detective novels (about which I hope to post something soon); another visit with the dazzling César Aira in his wildly inventive delicacy, La Princesse Printemps; a moving, dream-like complicity with Antonio Tabucchi’s hallucinatory Lisbon Requiem; and my first taste of many other terrific authors previously unfamiliar to me, among them Francis Wyndham, Anna Gavalda, Tom McCarthy, Zoyâ Pirzâd, Jean-Philippe Toussaint, Deszö Kosztolányi. 

A bonne année to all, with a coupe of champagne raised to 2011 being at least as rewarding a year as 2010 for discovering great literature.

Monday, January 3, 2011

César Aira: The Fabulist Manifesto

Argentinian author César Aira publishes two to three novellas a year, most of them about 100 pages long. To my knowledge only five have so far been translated into English, so I was greatly pleased to discover, in a bookstore in Toulouse, another of his novels in a French translation and further to find on the inside flap of the book the titles of 14 others translated into French, only one of which seems to overlap with existing English translations. Aira writes some of the most exciting contemporary fiction I’ve read. Despite their brevity, each of his remarkably compact novellas seems expansive and expanding, a small, swirling galaxy. They remind me of those early two-minute long Herb Alpert tunes – brief, perhaps, but able to convey a whole universe and seem absolutely epic. I love tight, wildly surprising writing like this – although I’m not sure there even exists a “like this” when referencing Aira, given his astonishing originality. His little novels - fantastically fertile, displaying a tremendously energetic and talented imagination - seem as though they just dropped onto earth out of the sky, with almost nothing at all familiar about them. And despite the compactness of these works, the economical quality of the writing isn’t the obvious feature it is with some other writers who seem to pride themselves on economy of language (I’m thinking, for example, of Annie Ernaux’s La Place, with its athletic writing as terse as a slogan on a t-shirt – and that’s a book I happen to like very much). Aira’s writing may be tight, but it’s also surprisingly lush. These novels are marvelous confections – strangely serious confections sometimes, as in An Episode in the Life of a Landscape Painter, but confections nonetheless (it seems somehow appropriate that two of the Aira novels I’ve read feature ice cream as an important plot element). Simply knowing that there are many more of his works ahead of me makes me feel as though I’ve been handed a box of those astonishing savory-sweet delicacies from Damascus, those improbable rhapsodies of rose petals, pistachios, cardamom, apricot, nougat and the like. They’re so transporting that you don’t want to eat them all at once, but you feel enormously fortunate to have them around for when the urge strikes you.

The Aira novel I picked up in Toulouse, La Princesse Printemps, is certainly the wildest, most fantastical and amusing of the Aira books I’ve read, laugh-out-loud funny in places, but the effect that dominates it above all is its incomparable, nearly delirious originality. One of the themes of the novel is in fact that serious fiction must strive to create something new, and La Princesse Printemps appears to do this on every page. For this reason, I’m reluctant to give away anything about the novel, since its surprises are so myriad and captivating, a succession of strikingly original conceits that, despite their strangeness, have nothing to do with the sort of adolescent gravitation towards the weird and exotic that marks, for example, so many contemporary American writers. I think I won’t give much away, though, if I reveal that La Princesse Printemps is intentionally a fable, with a princess who, in her island idyll, spends her time translating mediocre mass-market fiction into Spanish until the day a dark cloud and a black ship appear on the horizon. La Princesse Printemps, like Aira’s other novels, also manages to touch on more weighty questions of history, philosophy, literature and translation – his work consistently engages the very nature of literature - but its fabulist quality would make it a terrific book to read aloud some night with friends. I suspect even children - even though they might not understand a lot of it - would greatly enjoy hearing this novel read out loud.

Aira is one of those rare writers who make me feel as though anything I might say about him would be entirely superfluous and probably best replaced with the gesture of simply pressing one of his books into another reader’s hands with firm, silent insistence. So rather than say anything more about the novel itself, I’ll frame it between two favorite poems it called to mind. This is not the first time one of Aira’s novels has prompted thoughts of poetry more than prose (though I’d never think of describing one of them as a prose poem). If I were to append an epigram to La Princesse Printemps, Charles Baudelaire’s “A Landscape” would be a natural choice, here rendered into English by F. P. Sturm:

            I would, when I compose my solemn verse,
            Sleep near the heaven as do astrologers,
            Near the high bells, and with a dreaming mind
            Hear their calm hymns blow upon the wind.
            Out of my tower, with chin upon my hands,
            I’ll watch the singing, babbling human bands;
            And see the clock-towers like spars against the sky,
            And heavens that bring thoughts of eternity;

            And softly, through the mist, will watch the birth
            Of stars in heaven and lamplight on the earth;
            The threads of smoke that rise above the town;
            The moon that pours her pale enchantment down.
            Seasons will pass as Autumn fades the rose;
            And when comes Winter with his weary snows,
            I’ll shut the doors and window-casements tight,
            And build my faery palace in the night.
            Then I will dream of blue horizons deep,
            Of gardens where the marble fountains weep,
            Of kisses, and of ever-singing birds –
            A sinless Idyll built of innocent words.
            And Trouble, knocking at my window-pane
            And at my closet door, shall knock in vain;
            I will not heed him with his stealthy tread,
            Nor from my reverie uplift my head;
            For I will plunge deep in the pleasure still
            Of summoning the springtime with my will,
            Drawing the sun out of my heart, and there
            With burning thoughts making a summer air.

And the coda I’d choose for this strange, memorable little book would most certainly have to be this excerpt from Walter Arndt’s translation of Christian Morgenstern’s “The Moonsheep”:

            The moonsheep, lo, at dawn is dead.
            Itself is white, the sun is red.
            The moonsheep.