Monday, January 23, 2012

Can Xue: Strange Tales from a Neo-Classical Chinese Studio

Reading literature in translation I sometimes discover an element from the work’s culture of origin not immediately apparent from the work itself - a cultural practice, historical event, engagement with a literary precursor - which, once recognized, places the work in a richer context.

In a bookstore in China last year, I was drawn to a beguiling title, Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio, by 17th century writer Pu Songling. The book seemed too good to pass up, especially since it also promised a treasure trove of Chinese ghost stories of the sort I’d first encountered in Lafcadio Hearn’s Some Chinese Ghost Stories (not realizing that several of Hearn’s tales came from Pu Songling). Living up to its promise, Pu’s collection contained weird, captivating tales filled with ghosts, superstitions, odd temporal shifts, physical transformations and bizarre events of large and small magnitude, often pervaded by a sense of foreboding and death.

Weeks later, as I began reading contemporary Chinese author Can Xue, I was startled at the seamlessness of the transition from Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio to Can’s Blue Light in the Sky and Other Stories. For all of its contemporary experimental qualities and relation to 20th century influences, Can’s work of wild imagination, complex moods and delirious images clearly owed a tremendous debt to Pu Songling and a long line of other explorers of the supernatural and fantastic in Chinese literature.

Can has described herself as a “neo-classical” writer (which should have been enough of a clue), but without my having first stumbled onto Pu Songling and Hearn, I might have missed this connection between her work and these old stories. As in those tales, in Can’s stories the most bizarre of events unfold in an almost matter-of-fact, reportorial way, with naturalistically flat emotion, at least in the telling. If naturalist narratives stress the determined factuality of the world, then Can’s narrative style might be called “supernaturalist” – a similarly rooted approach in which reception to the supernatural and to the merely natural are scarcely distinguishable, a continuum rather than a separate realm. Strange phenomena and weird emanations from nature fill Can’s intricate, dreamlike tales, which usually take place in and around a village (to the extent that they can be said to “take place” anywhere other than some indeterminate psychological terrain) and often feature a young person entangled in some way with an older person or persons. They also usually involve ghosts and superstition, the grotesque and the decadent, with death nearly always in close proximity, and in this way resonate strongly with their classical precursors.  

What sets Can’s tales apart is the strongly modern sensibility and resistance to interpretation picked up on by many of the reviews of her work that I’ve read, which often center on one or both of two aspects of her work while (with notable exceptions[1]) saying little to nothing about her Chinese precedents. The first is to remark upon Can’s striking originality and reference her more immediate Western influences, including Borges, Kafka, Bruno Schulz, and Garcia Marquez (though in interviews Can has been dismissive of both magical realism and Garcia Marquez). As regards Borges and Kafka, the influences are obvious and acknowledged. Can has, in fact, written a full length book on Kafka, and her debt to him comes across through individuals mostly at the mercy of forces larger than themselves, of obscure networks of restrictions, illegible codes and blindly-followed traditions, of subjection to baffling human and natural phenomena that her characters confront with a mixture of mystification, adaptation, and submission. They roll with the situations they confront, but largely from a lack of alternatives. In these tightly constructed, intensely concentrated tales, one feels the sense of labyrinthine entrapment and abstractly directed activity as one finds, for example, in Kafka’s knotty, claustrophobic masterpiece, “The Burrow.”

Many of the 14 pieces in the Blue Light in the Sky interweave similar motifs, characters, and tone. Regarding the last, there’s not much joy in these stories; rather, the tone is slightly menacing, dark and disjointed, a shudder of horror behind a calm and mostly acquiescent narrative voice whose mild protests, when they occur, seem to dissipate into fog and echo back upon themselves. Unlike in the work of surrealist writers whose images deliberately detach from reality, the surrealistic elements here seem to serve as elaborate, two-handled, multi-sided metaphors for structuring interior, psychological states in a manner that gives them the plausibility of dreams despite their impossible, supernatural qualities.  

Despite this structuring of interiority, another common tack in reviews is an attempt to place Can’s work in a contemporary political context, awkwardly slotting her work into a Western framework that gazes on China from a distance (sometimes with alarmingly stereotypical assumptions). But there’s almost nothing explicitly recognizable about modern China in Can’s tales, or even any sense that she’s a writer overtly concerned with social or political issues. She herself has explicitly denied (perhaps disingenuously) not only a political element, but also that her stories even deal with the external world at all. The confusion may arise from the fact that the conceits she presents, through the encompassing sweep of her prodigious imagination (which seems to pick up something of everything it touches, like some literary katamari damacy), nonetheless manage to reflect, usually metaphorically and at a severely oblique slant, a wide range of problems with which contemporary China is wrestling: mass displacements from the countryside to the cities, rapid modernization and construction, environmental and cultural degradation and destruction, the fracturing of tradition in confrontation with rapid change, and a panoply of psychiatric pathologies (that China holds among the world’s highest rates of psychiatric disorder seems amply if indirectly reflected in Can’s stories). In the story “Snake Island,” for example (a title shared by one of Pu Songling’s tales), the narrator - in a standard theme from the repertoire of Chinese literature - returns to his native village after 30 years’ absence, but when he arrives, everything looks “completely wrong.”

The strange thing was that no matter how I combed through my memory, no matter how I stared at the scenery, I couldn’t call back that old village. As soon as I got off the bus, I thought I’d recognize the mountain road that went through our village – that twisting cobblestone road that I’d taken countless times from childhood to young adulthood. But – where was the road? Even the mountain had disappeared. In the open country stretching to the horizon was a walled community of bungalows in garish colors There weren’t even many trees near the houses. Wondering if I’d come to the wrong place, I went to ask a farmer’s wife. ‘Snake Island?’ She squinted, responding in the village dialect that I hadn’t heard in ages. ‘This is it.’

Nothing in the story fixes it in a precise time or explicitly alludes to particulars of modern China. But one can recognize the obliterating sense of dislocation the story depicts, a prominent feature of the psychological landscape in a country where an estimated 1.5 million people were uprooted from the banks of the Yangtze to accommodate the Three Gorges Dam, and where a vast, gleaming city like Shenzhen, with a population of over 12 million, was, just 30 years ago, a fishing village of a few hundred people.

But such oblique intimations of China’s modern situation are incidental in Can’s fiction. One glimpses these external elements as casual features of her literary landscapes, not as social criticism, and only via the interstices in narratives that read in most other ways like classical folk tales retooled to reflect the corrosive effects of the modern world and given new form by Can’s fertile imagination.

“Scenes Inside the Dilapidated Walls,” for example, seems to show off Can’s melding of the tone and supernaturalism of Chinese ghost stories with her modern influences. The young narrator and an isolated nameless old man, together beneath a stark sun that grows colder each day, unwillingly keep a lonely watch over some dilapidated walls (reminiscent of Borges’ “The Circular Ruins”) while waiting for a particular old woman to pass by. They spend the interminable hours trying out different ways to alleviate the boredom and increasing chill, including by telling one another “dull stories.” Both are drawn to the dilapidated walls, the old man with an addiction to sticking his head between its cracks, where he repeatedly makes startling discoveries, including, one day, beautiful flies with wings “like a rainbow” – a surprising novelty under the constancy of “this monotonous burning sun and clear sky.” As in most of Can’s tales, the action seems to carry little of the significance of her story, which is borne instead by a complex metaphorical language without clear referents. As the old man in the story says of a metaphor that has suddenly occurred to him (in the way Can’s own metaphors often seem like inspired conceits), “To tell the truth, this is a metaphor I thought up on the spur of the moment. My life now is like a metaphor covering a metaphor, or you could say a metaphor within another metaphor. This other metaphor is concealed in an even bigger metaphor.” While it’s purposefully unclear what the “bigger metaphor” of the story might be – and one strength of Can’s stories is their defiance of interpretation while at the same time magnifying the possibilities for interpretation – one could even see the tale as a potent image of the state of contemporary literature and of the effort to create something new and meaningful in a world where literary language, in its relation to a dilapidated past marked by erasures, elisions and revisions, offers traces of well-traveled, forking paths as well as new literary figurations that bubble up from a seemingly endless and mysterious fount, but where actual communication has become more difficult and assurance of meaning more unstable. As the young narrator of the story says at one point, “I was constantly bothered by the question: do our voices reach the outside world?”  In the end, these two persons, as suspended in indeterminacy as Lucky and Pozzo at the end of Waiting for Godot, come to see the absent old woman for whom they wait as their only “wisp of a connection to the outside world…our only thread.” But where is she?

Can’s brief afterword, entitled “A Particular Sort of Story,” presents an intriguing description of her artistic process. In it, she insists again that her work deals not with the external world but with the internal, arising through an almost shamanistic process combining instinct and spiritual practice. Can describes a kind of spiritual, dialectical poetics by which opposing elements get pushed to their extreme limits as a way of generating maximum poetic effect and “strangeness” via an “acceleration of mystery” (physicists take note). Can’s method seems to be a rigidly devotional matter of opening herself up to impersonal, unmediated eruptions from the subconscious; it’s telling that she frequently refers to herself in the third person in interviews, as though she is merely a disparate facet of or channel for some larger source of the collective unconscious, not the active agent of her works. Her method resolutely opposes a strict rationality, affirming the value of elements beyond the merely empirical. But at the same time, there is a rigor in Can’s method that she asserts in a provocative final sentence, in which she insists (with a frustrating lack of elaboration) that her spiritual, creative “neo-classical” process stands in diametric opposition to what gets translated here as “jungle culture.”

For all its undeniable originality in process as well as in product, Can Xue’s work also clearly owes as much of a debt to the “old dilapidated walls” of her Chinese literary predecessors as to those of her acknowledged modern influences. But as an artistic response to a complex world, Can’s work is as strangely resonant as one is likely to find in contemporary literature. Reading Pu Songling and then Can Xue in the wake of my own most recent visit to China left me thinking about Susan Sontag’s comment when asked why she would put on Waiting for Godot in such a challenging place as Sarajevo during the 1993 siege. Her reply has stayed with me since, and seems fitting for Can Xue’s relation to modern China: “There are more than a few people who feel strengthened and consoled by having their sense of reality affirmed and transfigured by art.”[2] If there is no intended or direct correspondence between Can’s stories and contemporary China - where the rapidity of change, the violent upheavals of progress and the contrasts and tensions between opposing elements reach awe-inspiring extremes arguably unmatched anywhere else on the planet - one might understandably claim that nothing illuminates the significance of Can Xue’s stories more than the “sense of reality” one can experience in modern China itself.

Much of the source material I consulted for this review can be found at MIT’s Can Xue web site - - an invaluable resource for information on the writer and her work). 

[1] i.e. here
[2] New York Review of Books, October 21, 1993

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Down and Out and Proud in Cairo

“The Café of Mirrors seemed to be a place created by man’s wisdom and set within the confines of a world doomed to sadness.” [photograph of Cairo’s Al Fishwary Café, a.k.a. the Café of Mirrors, by Hamad AlSarraf, used with his kind permission. More of Hamad AlSarraf’s photographs may be viewed at:]

Egyptian-French writer Albert Cossery’s 1955 novel Mendiants et Orgueilleux commences with a scene unforgettable in its combination of squalor, grotesquerie, and gallows humor. One of Cossery’s principal characters, Gohar, is awakened in his derelict Cairo apartment by water swirling about the newspapers on which he makes his bed. When he at last identifies its source, it’s as though the water itself has metastasized into a symbol of the impoverished, sordid existence he leads and of the proximity of death. Not that he cares much, for the chief thing on his mind once he’s out in the deluge of activity in the streets is to find, as quickly as possible, his hashish dealer.

That the novel begins with a literal awakening is both an elegant literary device and perhaps a kind of joke, as wakefulness, for Cossery’s characters, is but a state where dreams and reality overlap. With a slightly somnambulant quality, his figures move through the world according to their needs, at times scarcely cognizant of a difference in value between life and death, alive to what’s around them yet each possessing a dream for a better future he perhaps knows that he’ll never attain. Yet within this conflicted space between dream and resignation, a fierce sense of pride and a constitutional determination to live free from the constraints of codes, laws, and material trappings exerts itself. Cossery’s “proud beggars” (the title chosen for a recently republished English translation) include Gohar, former professor and now ragged street poet; his supplier of daily hashish, the supplicating, scheming Yeghen; and their acquaintance El Kordi, a government functionary and sort of dandy whose vaguely revolutionary aspirations take a back seat to his love for a prostitute at the brothel to which all three are linked. It is here where the motiveless murder of another young prostitute has set in motion an inquiry, led by Cossery’s fourth main character, the depressive homosexual detective Nour El Dine.

While there’s a murder investigation in Mendiants et Orgueilleux, Cossery displays little interest in toying with the detective genre, or in any kind of literary gaming, for that matter. Sure, there’s a murder, but it’s practically incidental to the story, particularly since neither the killer - whose identity we know already from witnessing the murder - nor his companions seem to see anything terribly regrettable about the crime, with the inefficacy and moral vacuity of the police exposed as an even worse sort of indifference. Both crime and investigation seem an almost negligible, perfunctory set of events in this atmosphere of indifference and insolence, a minor and disposable tragedy in a world of more monstrous crimes that now possesses even the power to destroy itself - that one inhabits the lower depths of Cairo’s back alleys doesn’t prevent one from recognizing the criminality of the atomic bomb. And Mendiants et Orgueilleux is most certainly a novel of the lower depths, its pages populated with the poor and afflicted, from listless prostitutes to street children scrounging discarded cigarette butts, from a one-eyed policeman to a legless, armless beggar whose wife is jealous of other women given the earnings such a wretched state can bring in from the man’s solicitations.

As immediately evident in the arresting opening pages, Cossery’s sense of how to set up a scene is pitch perfect. Introducing his principal characters one by one in more or less separate scenes that unfold like set pieces, Cossery then brings them together in a culminating rendezvous in which the values of the street collide and co-mingle with those of authority in a black comedy quite literally of manners, since the extreme politesse of the meeting only amplifies its absurdity. Nour El Dine – sharing tea with his prime suspects in Cairo’s famous Café of Mirrors – finds his view of the world as something to be ordered coming up against beings who simply refuse to participate “in the destiny of the civilized world,” in any order whatsoever other than the exigencies of their needs and their dignity. The policeman is dumbfounded, for instance, at their suggestion that he dispatch his task by simply arresting one of them who has willingly admitted to the crime but who is clearly not the guilty party (the question of guilt or innocence seeming of little relevance). They take a polite but distinct pleasure in mocking the officer’s incomprehension and adherence to proper procedure:

“Does a motiveless crime fall under the purview of the law? Isn’t it essentially the same as an earthquake, for example?

“An earthquake doesn’t reason,” said Nour El Dine. “It’s a misfortune.”

“But man has become a misfortune to himself,” replied Gohar. “Man has become worse than an earthquake. In any case, he does more damage. Don’t you believe, Mr. Officer, that man has, for quite some time now, surpassed in horror the cataclysms of nature?”

“I can’t arrest an earthquake,” said Nour El Dine with comical assuredness.

“And the bomb!” said Yeghen. “Can’t you arrest the bomb, Excellency?”

“Again with this ridiculousness!” said Nour El Dine resignedly. “No, Mr. Yeghen, I cannot arrest the bomb.”

“Then you’re paid to do nothing,” said Yeghen, “Since, to me, arresting the murderer of a prostitute seems nothing compared to being able to stop the bomb.”

Despite these memorable characters, the real star of Mendiants et Orgueilleux is Cairo itself, which Cossery indulges with rich, unflinching description.  There’s a gravitational pull in nearly all of Cossery's scenes towards the street, as though the crowded alleys and trams and sidewalks were dense, inescapable black holes into which the characters were involuntarily drawn again and again. These repeated sorties among the crowds seem to serve as entr’actes between Cossery’s set pieces, plunging the reader into the coarse, animated world of Cairo through palpable sensational touches: the odor of rancid onions on a woman in a tramway; the dry, mealy texture of pastries in a cheap patisserie; the cracked facades of storefronts; shadows in the maze of alleys. One is acutely conscious of the city pressing in and down on the populace, though not in quite the way one might imagine: despite abundant misery and the daily struggle to survive, Cairo’s streets hum and buzz with life and even a kind of joy squeezed from this jostling crush of humanity.  

Amid this raw human cacophony, Cossery’s proud beggars find a degree of comfort shocking to bourgeois, materialist standards. They take their impertinent position in the lower depths as a point of pride and as insubordination to authority, which itself is portrayed as arbitrary and brutal, morally and spiritually vacant, devoid of the rich philosophy of the street. Rather than coming across as in any way polemical, this anti-authoritarian contempt reveals itself through the poetic wit (and street wits) of Cossery’s characters, whose indifference to power serves to undermine it. The strength of this subversion comes in part from Cossery’s refusal to reduce his characters to simple tropes: for all that Nour El Dine represents as an institutional foil to the others’ carefree defiance, he’s nonetheless a complex, even sympathetic character whose human faults plague him in much the same way that they seem to liberate others.

The novel’s final pages include a scene in which a simple gesture of humanity mixes compassion with abjection to produce the kind of pointed moral clarity one sees in Flaubert’s “The Legend of Saint Julian Hospitaller” when Julian crawls into bed with a horrifically afflicted dying leper. In the simple, matter-of-fact acceptance with which an unrepentant murderer administers aid to one of humanity’s most unfortunate members while one whose very job it is, ostensibly, to provide service and protection, looks on in horror and revulsion, Cossery delivers a caustic attack on the guardians of moral order - scoundrels all - who serve little more than “injustice and shadows” and a system designed to mask simple truths about power. But as Cossery suggests in this exceptionally rich, inimitable, ebullient, seamy, blackly funny and proudly democratic novel, even scoundrels wielding power are intractably stuck in the essential humanness with which we are all blessed and condemned.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Deglazing 2011: Favorites


A few books I’ve just read sail by like schooners on the way to the Bermuda Triangle, where they will disappear without a trace.”
From “Start of a Late Autumn Novel,” by Tomas Tranströmer (Robert Bly, Translator)

I’m either incredibly fortunate with my reading choices or far less discriminating than Tomas Tranströmer (both, certainly), as I can happily say that few books I read in 2011 are likely to disappear into any Bermuda Triangle. Even if they did, one of my favorite stories from 2010, Frigyes Karinthy’s “Two Ships,” resoundingly affirms the value of venturing off the edge of the earth. Having started the year with more than 20 reading “projects” in mind, I see now that I accomplished exactly two of them. In place of the others, I read books stumbled upon in the library, mentioned in articles and reviews, a few from my to-be-read pile, a few from my already-read-pile, and many suggested by friends, strangers, and other bloggers. Never have I read so - wantonly.

But what a rewarding and wide-ranging year. Of the 80 or so books I finished, over half were in translation and another handful were in French (for me still a kind of translation), so I seem to be in line with The Observer ’s recent labeling of 2011 as “The Year of the Translator.”

2011 was also my first year of keeping a book blog. The transition from private log to public blog has not been smooth, and I’m only beginning to learn about how blogging works. But a great, unanticipated benefit of the shift has been expanded exposure to so many talented book bloggers, whose writing has been penetrating, inspiring, exalting, and humbling. For 2012, I can only hope to fail better at aspiring to write - and to read - so well.

2011 Highlights

One of the two projects I set out to accomplish and actually accomplished was to read the works of Italian writer Antonio Tabucchi thus far translated into English. Tabucchi won me over several years ago when I read his Rêves de Rêves in French translation, and then again last year when I read Requiem: Une Hallucination, also in French. He’s among my favorite living writers, not simply in his virtuosity and versatility (he has an uncanny ability to make each of his works seem entirely different from the others), but also in his activist role, having been at the forefront of defending a number of politically persecuted writers (most notably journalist Roberto Saviano) and having dared to expose, at great personal cost, corruption in Silvio Berlusconi’s government. The Tabucchi works I read this year include the novels Pereira Declares[1], The Missing Head of Damasceno Monteiro, Indian Nocturne, The Edge of the Horizon[2], and the short story collections Little Misunderstandings of No Importance, It’s Getting Later All the Time, Letter from Casablanca, The Woman of Porto Pim, and The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico. Of these, I’d probably pick Pereira Declares and Indian Nocturne as my favorites, but all, without exception, count among my favorite books of 2011.

The Book of Disquiet, by Fernando Pessoa (Richard Zenith, translator). The second of the projects I managed to accomplish. Tabucchi and Pessoa came as something of a package deal, since the work of the former owes a tremendous debt to the latter, whom Tabucchi has translated, taught, and written about critically, and whose presence infuses most of Tabucchi’s own work. Discussion of The Book of Disquiet is set for the end of March as part of the Wuthering Expectations Portuguese Literature Challenge.

A Time for Everything, by Karl Knausgaard (James Anderson, translator). The most impressive contemporary novel I read in 2011.

Season of Migration to the North, by Tayib Saleh (Denys Johnson-Davies, translator). A stunning and scathing novella so attuned to both large political forces and the impact of small individual decisions that after putting it down I sensed a dividing line between all that I had read before and everything I would read subsequent. I can think of few novels that have so abruptly made me feel how little I know and how critical it is to question one’s assumptions.

The Man in Flames, by Serge Filippini (Liz Nash, translator). A historical novel about heretical 16th century philosopher Giordano Bruno, who comes across in French author Filippini’s deeply affecting work as one of the great figures of our time. I say our time, because more than 400 years after Bruno’s death we’re only beginning to catch up to him. Structured across Bruno’s last seven days in prison prior to his being burned at the stake, The Man in Flames takes a free hand in introducing fictional elements into Bruno’s story, but always in service of producing a powerful vision of his time and his fight against anti-intellectualism, superstition, fundamentalism, brutality and intolerance.

The Story of Zahra, by Hanan Al-Shaykh (Peter Ford, translator). If literature has an ameliorative function – if it can actually change people’s perceptions and deepen understanding – I might well choose The Story of Zahra as one of the works I’d most want to see read across the world. In its unconventional, unsentimental and revelatory depiction of a young woman growing up in war-torn Beirut, it overturned whatever stereotypical notions I may have had about women in the Middle East. Thanks to M. Lynx Qualey at Arabic Literature (In English) for leading me to this brave, intense roar of a novel.

Beautiful Days, by Franz Innerhofer (Anselm Hollo, translator).

Mendiants et Orgueilleux, by Albert Cossery. Egyptian-born Cossery’s radical coterie of “proud beggars” (the title used in the recent reissue of an English translation) in the alleys of Cairo is subversive, gritty, defiant, shocking, pungent, playful, and morbidly funny. This certainly won’t be the last novel I’ll read by this strikingly singular writer.

Stealth, by Sonallah Ibrahim (Hosam Aboul-Ela, translator). Ibrahim’s Amrikanli: Un Autumne à San Francisco is the novel I’d most like to see translated into English. I also read this year his first work translated into English, a short collection of stories entitled The Smell of It, the title story of which clearly lays the foundations for Stealth.

Rosa Candida, by Audur Ava Ólafsdóttir (Catherine Eyjólfsson, translator). Though I read it in French, an English translation has appeared under the title The Greenhouse. To write successfully about happiness requires some daring; to write successfully about transcendence and beatitude in a contemporary story about accidental parents requires utter fearlessness.

The Maias, by José Maria Eça De Queiros  (Margaret Jull Costa, translator). Though it made last year’s “Best of 2010” summary, it’s so good that I’m putting it on this “Best of 2011” list as well. Thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations for prompting me to read this marvelous novel for the second time in as many years.

Point de Lendemain, by Vivant Denon (also read in the English translation by Lydia Davis, No Tomorrow). A delectable, capricious caracole of a story that creates an elaborate, almost occult metaphor for initiation into the mysteries of erotic love in its depiction of the amorous and adulterous escapades of 18th century libertines along the banks of the Seine.

Tomorrow in the Battle Think on Me, by Javier Marias (Margaret Jull Costa, translator). I read Marias’ Your Face Tomorrow trilogy last year, and while Tomorrow in the Battle doesn’t possess the vast scope and ambition of that work, the conceit Marias presents on the novel’s first page – a man’s coming to grips with the sudden death of a woman during their one-night encounter – develops in such unexpected ways and takes off in such unexpected directions that I’d be remiss leaving it off this list.  

Notable other new discoveries include the unfairly neglected work of multi-talented Czech writer Jan Křesadlo in Gravelarks; fiercely imaginative contemporary Chinese writer Can Xue; the wildly entertaining 17th century Chinese ghost stories of Pu Songling; Caroline Blackwood’s short, deadpan creations of unforgettable characters in The Stepdaughter and Great Granny Webster; Robert Greenfield’s superb biography of Frederic Prokosch; the gothic, Gorey-esque wit of Barbara Comyns in Who was Changed and Who Was Dead; further travels with the late Patrick Leigh Fermor in Mani: Travels in the Southern Pelaponnese and in his sole work of fiction, The Violins of Saint Jacques; Stoner, by John Williams, an American writer surely deserving of as much attention as his better known peers; Greek writer Margarita Karapanou, whose Kassandra and the Wolf should be a lesson to writers of confessional fictions of childhood as to how to go about it; Anna Kavan’s intense, genre-bending apocalyptic vision in Ice; the strikingly formalist historical fictions of Marta Morazzoni in Girl in a Turban (a book with so many open windows and doors that one could probably get home by using them the same way John Cheever’s “The Swimmer” used swimming pools); Nobel Prize winner Grazia Deledda’s unforgettably atmospheric story of poverty and redemption in Sardinia in Reeds in the Wind.

Works reread this year, in addition to The Maias, only deepened my appreciation for them: Joan Didion’s great Sacramento River Delta novel Run River and Terry Andrews’ The Story of Harold (I recently received as a gift Harold et le Rat, a French translation I did not know existed, and which will no doubt substantially amplify my knowledge of filthy French slang). I was also thrilled to re-discover, after hunting for many years for them without success, a trilogy of novels I’d read as a child but of which I had no recollection other than of a cover image. A chance mention of a book illustrator led to a cascading series of memories, and within days I had reread British science fiction writer John Christopher’s “Tripods” trilogy. I was delighted to find that although my tastes have changed, Christopher’s books were as entertaining as I’d remembered, the kind of expert fiction for young people that doesn’t condescend or eschew difficult situations and mature conflicts.

Finally, every year I leave some works unfinished, not always (or even often) because I don’t find them worthwhile. Though I did not finish Thursday’s Child, the autobiography of singer Eartha Kitt, Kitt’s stunning opening chapters, portraying her childhood in rural southern poverty and the sacrifices of her mother, recounted with searing, unsentimental clarity and force, are as powerful as anything I’ve read in American writing, and among the highlights of a terrific year of literary discovery.

[1] Also available in English under the titles Declares Pereira and Pereira Maintains, all three translated by Patrick Creagh.
[2] The Edge of the Horizon also appears in a British edition as Vanishing Point; both feature the same Tim Parks translation, though the latter also contains the short collections The Woman of Porto Pim and The Flying Creatures of Fra Angelico.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

2011 Round-Up: Poetry

I’m not an adept reader of poetry and am too often content to take refuge in those poems I know well already, but this past year (reader alert: here’s the first of what may be turn into a few late end-of-year posts), I read more collections of poetry than usual:

Hapax, by MacArthur “genius” award winner and classics translator A. E. Stallings - certainly among my favorite contemporary poetry discoveries of recent years. At a dinner the day after I’d finished the book, I annoyingly interrupted several times to exclaim, “Hey, I just read a great poem about exactly that [thing, whatever we all happened to be discussing at the moment].” Stallings’ penetrating observations, tremendous energy and wit rapturously rattle the cages of the neo-classical formalism of her poems, which traverse subjects as varied as arrowheads, sonograms, first love, mint, marriage, eccentric museums, insomnia, thyme, bats. Really? A fantastic poem about bats? I loved this book.

The Half-Finished Heaven and Other Poems by 2011 Nobel Prize winner, Swedish poet Tomas Tranströmer (translated by Robert Bly). Tranströmer’s crystalline, philosophical and often highly moving poems that intimately touch on moments of critical decision and reflection made this poet another favorite new discovery.

The revelatory, free-form, often monumental poems of Syrian poet Adonis (a runner-up for the Nobel Prize) in his first major collection to appear in English, Adonis: Selected Poems (translated by Khaled Mattawa), which opened up a new and vast world to me. I’ve yet to finish this rich volume, which demands slow and patient reading, but am drawn to Adonis as I was to one of my old favorites, St. John Perse, whose poems Adonis, not coincidentally, was the first to translate into Arabic (thanks to M. Lynx Qualey at Arablit for posting on Adonis).

The overblown, internationalist mythos of Frederic Prokosch’s first book of poetry, Assassins – again, echoes of St. John Perse, but difficult to read with a straight face after exposure to Louise Bogan’s delicious parody in “Imitation of a Poem by Frederic Prokosch.”[1]

American nouveau-Beat poet (could I, should I call him that?) John Beer’s audaciously-titled and audaciously-constructed collection, The Waste Land.

The lean, graceful, homo-erotically charged “songs” of early 20th century Portuguese poet António Botto in The Songs of António Botto, translated into English by his better known friend, Fernando Pessoa (thanks to Tom at Wuthering Expectations for alerting me to Botto’s poems).

She Says, by Vénus Khoury-Ghata, a ravishingly beautiful collection of densely surreal and opaque poems filtering Khoury-Ghata’s Lebanese background through expatriate life in France, and her Arabic through her French (and through translator Marilyn Hacker’s glittering English). I marveled at Khoury-Ghata’s daring, striking combinations of images, as well as at her ability to employ a dazzling surface opacity while exploring the disruptions of living suspended between two cultures and languages – and the complications of accessing, in exile, privileges that would have been denied to her as a woman in her native country.

Winning in the “Most Unusual” category: Gwyneth Lewis’ Keeping Mum (brought to my attention by Philip Gross’ brief mention in The Guardian in an article on “writing at the edge of silence”). Lewis also explores the perils of living between two languages. The title is an obvious play on words between the metaphorical meaning of remaining silent and the British shorthand for “mother,” clever for a work explicitly about Lewis’ relationship with her endangered mother tongue, Welsh. Lewis writes one book in Welsh which she then uses as a springboard for another in English, allowing such full play in the act of translating her own words that the English product differs almost completely from its Welsh progenitor (leaving only readers of Welsh privy to the differences). The pattern converges thematically in Keeping Mum, in which Lewis uses her English to interrogate her Welsh, quite literally (literarily) in that the collection becomes a sort of detective story about the murder of the Welsh language, starring a detective/translator, a kind of forensic psychiatrist, and a coterie of angels. Both playful and sober, and written in a variety of mostly formalist styles, Lewis’ poems pull together elements of criminal interrogation and psychiatry, disorders of language, the proximal bleeding across membranes of the languages one knows, the responsibility of the writer towards conserving and deepening language, and the complications of sourcing poetic inspiration by appealing to a kind of estrangement and disarrangement of the personality. I admired the overarching, novelistic conceit of Keeping Mum, since so many poetry collections lack a unifying element. My favorite line in Lewis’ book, though, came not from her poems, but from her introduction, in which she notes that revisiting the Welsh book that preceded Keeping Mum produced several “entirely new” poems in English that she refers to as “translations without an original text – perhaps a useful definition of poetry” - and perhaps a useful thought for anyone interested in translation.

Finally, “poetic” if not strictly “poetry,” I’ll include Ursula Molinaro and John Evans’ pastiche of elements found in a trash can and reassembled into Remnants of an Unknown Woman; Jon Cotner and Andy Fitch’s experimental collision between a microphone, two conversing friends, and the streets of Manhattan in Ten Walks/Two Talks (a peculiar, clever and fun book, but in my lowbrow response I couldn’t get out of my head Beavis and Butthead’s description of a Beck video as like something from “one of those dudes from the gifted class”); and Harry Mathew’s semi-poetic, joyful vision of a world in the ecstatic throes of masturbation in Singular Pleasures. Rounding out the year was Fernando Pessoa’s tremendous magnum opus The Book of Disquiet, a constant companion for two months. Though Pessoa himself addresses the distinction between poetry and prose, I couldn’t shake the sense that this complex, difficult to define work came across more as poetry than anything else. Let’s say “poeticized prose,” a term cribbed from translator Richard Zenith’s introduction. More about that towards the end of March, as part of the Portuguese Reading Challenge hosted by Wuthering Expectations.

[1] Imitation of a Poem by Frederic Prokosch, by Louise Bogan  (excerpted in Dreamer's Journey: The Life and Writings of Frederic Prokosch, by Robert Greenfield, Newark: University of Delaware Press, 2010)