Jenny Erpenbeck, The End of Days (2014 US translation; originally released in German in 2012)

October 30th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

The Lord gave, and the Lord took away, her grandmother said to her at the edge of the grave.  But that wasn’t right, because the Lord had taken away much more than had been there to start with, and everything her child might have become was now lying there at the bottom of the pit, waiting to be covered up.  Three handfuls of dirt, and the little girl running off to school with her satchel on her back now lay there in the ground, her satchel bouncing up and down as she runs ever farther; three handfuls of dirt, and the ten-year-old playing the piano with pale fingers lay there; three handfuls, and the adolescent girl whose bright coppery hair men turn to stare at as she passes was interred; three handfuls tossed down into the grave, and now even the grown woman who would have come to her aid when she herself had begun to move slowly, taking some task out of her hands with the words:  oh, Mother – she too was being slowly suffocated by the dirt falling into her mouth.  Beneath three handfuls of dirt, an old woman lay there in the grave:  a woman who herself had begun to move slowly, one to whom another young woman, or a son, at times might have said:  oh, Mother – now she, too, was waiting to have dirt thrown on top of her until eventually the grave would be full again, in fact even a bit fuller than full, since after all the mound of earth on a grave is always round on top because of the body underneath, even if the body lies far below the surface where no one can see.  The body of an infant that has died unexpectedly produces hardly any roundness at all.  But really the mound ought to be as huge as the Alps, she thinks, even though she’s never seen the Alps with her own eyes. (pp. 5-6)

The story of a life is a life unto its own.  It can be a tale of adventure, or of missed opportunities.  There are joys and tragedies in each of life’s permutations and in a real sense, good fiction allows us to (re)imagine each of those possibilities as we live and endure the lives that we possess.  Who hasn’t ever asked herself upon learning of an untimely death “what if…?”  Who hasn’t wondered, perhaps aloud, what if things could be changed, what would happen next?

In her 2012 novel, The End of Days, translated this year into English by Susan Bernofsky, German writer Jenny Erpenbeck explores five different permutations of a woman’s life and death.  Ranging from death as an infant at the dawn of the 20th century to a woman in dotage as the Berlin Wall, The End of Days is divided into five novella-length stories that explore these questions of “what if”:  an  infant’s death affects her parents; the young woman who survives only to die in a senseless fashion; the revolutionary who makes an unfortunate choice just before the German-Soviet War; a retiree who is five minutes too early for her appearance downstairs; a woman whose fading memories overshadow a life seemingly well-lived.  These capsule summaries, however, do not so much “spoil” the story as they circumscribe its outlines, allowing Erpenbeck to do so some interesting things within these short mini-narratives.

The concept of a repeating life is not a new one; last year, Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life also dealt with a young woman, Ursula Todd, who would die and be reborn, (re)living the epochal 20th century.  Yet Erpenbeck’s book is different in certain key ways from Atkinson’s intriguing novel.  One important difference is in the import that the anonymous narrator’s life has on events.  She does not affect the course of history; she is continually shaped by events, but she herself is but that Shakespearean actress who frets her hour upon the stage and then is seen no more.  Any changes that occur are minor; what we see unfold are variations on a theme, of how lives shift and shape themselves around the greater events that transpire around and through them.  In each of her five lives, from the nascent to the elderly, the protagonist is a product of a troubled mixed Jewish-Christian marriage who struggles to make her way as a woman through a world in which women are often oppressed by men.  While this is not a central element to any of the five substories, it is a common thread that runs through each and which provides a narrative unity that binds these five sections together cohesively.

Erpenbeck’s attention to the smaller details allows her to form symbolic connections that the reader will grasp as she reads further into the novel.  For example, I was struck by the way humble soil, dirt even, is utilized not just as a metaphor for death and the burial of hopes, but also with how it ties into the renewal of life.  This is readily apparent not just in the passage quoted above from the beginning of the book, but also in a key scene in the third section, set in the Russian steppe during World War II.  Soil is bound in frost, a necessary cold in which the seeds of too-brief lives are contained.

Erpenbeck’s narrative also has a curious “distance” to it that paradoxically makes these life permutations somehow more intimate.  By talking of life and hope and failures as though they too were tales to be recounted for an audience, something that might be instructive but which also has value in being an entertaining yarn in its own right, the reader’s focus is concentrated more readily on the choices that the protagonist makes, which in turn allows the reader to ponder more closely questions of passivity in the face of great events and the amount of agency we might actually possess in our lives.  It should also be noted that this protagonist is not a monolithic character; her views and personality shift from life to life, as she is not static, but instead is dynamically transformed by the events that she does/does not manage to avoid happening to her in the next cycle of her interrupted lives.  This, too, ties back in to Erpenbeck’s exploration of the limitations of human agency and it is done very well within the context of this story.

After all, as the woman’s grandmother reflects in the first section after the infant version is buried:

For many years now she has known something that her daughter will soon be forced to learn:  A day on which a life comes to an end is still far from being the end of days. (p. 15)

Through these five permutations, each presented with a clarity of prose and with great insight into personal power dynamics, Erpenbeck (aided by Bernofsky’s superb translation) has composed a compact yet powerful novel that might be one of the year’s best, whether in translation or originally written in English.

2014 Prix Médicis finalist: Antoine Volodine, Terminus radieux

October 26th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

– Suite à une tentative de rekoulakisation, dit Hannko Vogoulian, il y a longtemps.  Nous, on était pas nées.  C’était avant que le kolkhoze soit rebaptise «Terminus radieux».  Si les Organes étaient pas intervenus, c’était à coup sûr le retour du capitalisme et de toutes les saloperies qui vont avec.  Ça a fonctionné deux ou trois ans comme centre de rééducation.  Ensuite, Solovieï est devenu président et ça a fermé.

Myriam Oumarik enchaîna.

– Pendant l’accident, on l’a rouvert, dit-elle.  On avait besoin d’un local pour entasser les irradiés en attendant que l’entrepôt de la Mémé Oudgoul soit opérationnel.

– On en trouvait dans tous les coins, des irradiés, compléta Hannko Vogoulian.  Fallait bien qu’on les emmagasine quelque part.

Le jacassage des deux filles r´´sonnait dans la salle d’eau.  Il donnait le tournis à Kronauer qui n’avait pas besoin de cette avalanche de paroles pour se sentir mal. (p. 80 Bluefire Reader PDF e-format)

I have read five of the eight 2014 Prix Médicis finalists for Best Novel.  Of the five, Antoine Volodine’s Terminus radieux (Radiant Terminus is a possible English translation) is perhaps simultaneously the most fascinating and most frustrating to read and think about.  Although my French reading comprehension has grown considerably since taking an online French course this summer, this novel served to remind me that no matter how much of the grammar and vocabulary that I understand (well over 75% without adding another 10-15% for words understood in context), that there are some novels written in other languages that will tax the abilities of non-native readers much more than what might be presumed by the writing style or vocabulary employed.

Mind you, this is not a criticism of Volodine’s work; if anything, it is a testimony to how this novel requires extra effort from all readers, regardless of fluency level, in order to wring the utmost amount of understanding from it.  While there were times where my not-yet-fully-fluent reading comprehension failed me, I could sense that there was something strange, magical even, transpiring in this story set some years after a nuclear apocalypse following the end of the Second Soviet Union.  Terminus radieux is the story of people after a fall, of dreamers and escapees, all doomed, who wander in a toxic Siberian landscape in which the living and the dead commingle, where there is a sort of communion with the supernatural, where the irreal and real collide and a strange brew of elements emerges from these interactions.

Volodine’s tale contains a plethora of references to recent political and cultural developments, all tweaked in order to fit into what the author (who, I should add, seems to have as many authorial pseudonyms as the late Fernando Pessoa, some of which write stories that are referenced in the writings of other pseudonyms of his) has elsewhere called a “post-exoticism” style of literature that seeks to make even the mundane into something weird and unsettling.  Being unfamiliar (for the moment, that is) with his other writings, I felt at times out at sea, out of my depth as a reader, as I could sense there were some textual interplays occurring in the murky depths of certain passages that due to a combination of unfamiliarity with both writer and the language left me clueless as to certain things that were taking place.

Yet perversely, this actually made me think higher of this tale.  Certainly from what I did understand, Volodine has an excellently twisted sense of black humor and his fantastical elements, many of which seem to be connected to economic and political concerns, make for a rich, provocative tale of adaptation in a dearth of life-sustaining environs.  It is, as I noted above, not an “easy” tale to parse, but from what I did grasp, it is the sort of fiction that if it were translated into English, for example, could find a small yet very appreciative audience, particularly among those who enjoy both post-apocalyptic literature and savagely funny satires of current socio-political issues.  While I may have been partially defeated from understanding Terminus radieux this time due to my relative limitations in reading French, it certainly will be a book that I will revisit as I continue to work on strengthening my understanding of this lovely language.  Volodine too shall be an author whose works I’ll also explore again in the future, as it seems he may be just the sort of writer that I’d enjoy reading in both translation and in the original French.

2014 National Book Award Fiction finalist: Emily St. John Mandel, Station Eleven

October 26th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

There was the flu that exploded like a neutron bomb over the surface of the earth and the shock of the collapse that followed, the first unspeakable years when everyone was traveling, before everyone caught on that there was no place they could walk to where life continued as it had before and settled wherever they could, clustered close together for safety in truck stops and former restaurants and old motels.  The Traveling Symphony moved between the settlements of the changed world and had been doing so since five years after the collapse, when the conductor had gathered a few of her friends from their military orchestra, left the air base where they’d been living, and set out into the unknown landscape.

***

Twenty years after the collapse they were still in motion, traveling back and forth along the shores of Lakes Huron and Michigan, west as far as Traverse City, east and north over the 49th parallel to Kincardine.  They followed the St. Clair River south to the fishing towns of Marine City and Algonac and back again.  This territory was for the most part tranquil now.  They encountered other travelers only rarely, peddlers mostly, carting miscellanea between towns.  The Symphony performed music – classical, jazz, orchestral arrangements of pre-collapse pop songs – and Shakespeare.  They’d performed more modern plays sometimes in the first few years, but what was startling, what no one would have anticipated, was that audiences seemed to prefer Shakespeare to their other theatrical offerings. (pp. 37-38)

Literature often conforms to and reflects contemporary societal concerns.  A case can be made that with uncertainty about the long-term sustainability of environmental and socio-political structures, stories of sudden, catastrophic collapse and struggles for survival in a changed climate have become more popular than ever before.  Several 2014 releases that I’ve already reviewed have touched upon some of these concerns, yet this does not mean that there is not room for yet another take on collapse, another exploration of how humanity might reorder and reinterpret itself after its civilizations fold under the weight of a sudden calamity.

Emily St. John Mandel’s 2014 National Book Award-nominated novel Station Eleven is one of those works that manages to maintain key features that are endemic to post-apocalyptic literature while introducing elements that allow for a greater consideration of those cultural artifacts that we reject or cherish according to the pressures of the times.  At first glance, it is a bog standard tale of a group of survivors twenty years after a deadly super flu, the Georgia Flu, has wiped out over 90% of the human population in a matter of months.  With its peripatetic, motley crew of actors and musicians, the Traveling Symphony seems to be just one more wandering band of folk, maybe kin to McCarthy’s Father and Son in The Road or even the family groups found in Mandel’s The Millions colleague Eden Lepucki’s California.  But there is something different about Mandel’s tale, something that took me nearly two-thirds of the novel to realize just what it might be, that makes it better than the latter and close at times to the quality of the former.

The narrative structure certainly doesn’t make for an easy introduction into the tale.  Seen primarily through the eyes of a former child actress, Kirsten Raymonde, the tale moves back and forth from the pivotal night just before the Georgia Flu’s explosion into pandemic status, when a renowned actor, Arthur Leander, dies on-stage of a heart attack while performing King Lear.  As the young Kirsten watches horrified, a former paparazzi turned EMT, Jeevan, futilely tries to revive Arthur.  From here, these unlikely personal connections spawn a set of interactions that span two decades and the destruction of most global civilization.  Mandel switches frequently back and forth from the near-future “past” of Arthur’s final days to the mid-21st century “present” of airport towns and the rise of a mysterious prophet who bounds all who enter his demesne to stay at pain of execution.

At first, the connections Mandel establishes between the flashbacks and “current” events are tenuous, as there is a real sense that there is little narrative “glue” that binds these seemingly disparate events together.  If it weren’t for the skill that she has in developing character and voice (several chapters or interludes utilize interview transcripts and quasi-historical clippings to summarize past events, while other passages have a more intimate feel about them, particularly the ones dealing with young Kirsten and with Arthur’s family), there wouldn’t be enough narrative tension to sustain the reader’s attention for long.

Yet a little beyond the halfway point of the novel, these seemingly separate events begin to converge in some interesting ways.  Not only does the main plot, that of the Traveling Symphony dealing with this mad prophet, come into clearer focus, but several themes that Mandel introduced in these flashback sequences, particularly that of how certain cultural artifacts are more enduring than others, comes into play.  Of particular interest is how Shakespeare’s plays, especially King Lear, come into play near the end.  It is not a trite, shallow exploration of the playwright’s themes, but also of certain connections between the times in which he composed those plays and the times in which Kirsten and her companions live and operate.

There is another layer to this as well.  From the Star Trek:  Voyager quote of “Because survival is insufficient” to the eponymous fictitious Station Eleven, there are certain pop cultural memes or touchstones that also survive the chasm of the Collapse.  How Kirsten and another important character deal with these shared preserved cultural elements is vital to understanding not just the mysteries of the flashbacks Kirsten has, but also in grasping just how the final scenes of the novel unfold.  Granted, these connections are not always integrated fluidly into the narrative, but for the most part Mandel manages to present them without an excess sense of treacly “deeper understanding” that often plague novels of discovery in the midst of calamity.

On the whole, Station Eleven is a fairly well-constructed post-apocalyptic novel that manages to be just original enough to surprise the reader on occasion.  While the situations and some of the outcomes are going to be familiar to readers of post-apocalyptic literature, the characters and their motivations are sufficiently developed enough that there is little sense of this novel being a derivative work.  The prose for the most part is excellent and outside of the initial difficulty in following the numerous flashback sequences during the first half of the story, the narrative on the whole flows well toward a fitting conclusion.  Station Eleven is not my favorite of the National Book Award finalists for Fiction, but it certainly is a story that is worth most readers’ times.

Richard House, The Kills (2013 Booker Prize longlist; 2014 US release)

October 21st, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

‘Monkey, Paul.  Think monkey.  Change the codes, those codes are yours, no one else will notice.  That’s the first step.  Second – and this is important – I want you to erase all of the personnel information you have on Stephen Sutler, anything non-financial, anything extra-curricular, private emails, anything like that, and when he comes in tomorrow, I want you to follow his instructions and divide the funds marked for his project into four new operational accounts.  Sutler has the details for the new accounts.  He has it all worked out.  Do exactly what he asks.  Make those transfers, and make sure the full amount assigned to HOSCO for the Massive leaves your holdings.  Divide it however he tells you into the four new accounts:  one, two, three, four.  Load them up.  In addition, he has a secured junk account, and I want you to attach that junk account to your dummy highway project.  Fatten it up with two-fifty, let him see the amount.  Show him the transfer.  That’s five accounts, Paul.  Four accounts attached to Stephen Sutler, and one to the highways.  I want all five of them loaded.  Do you understand me?’ (p. 11)
Richard House’s 2013 Booker Prize-longlisted The Kills (2014 US release) is a strange sort of book.  It walks (struts?) like a thriller, has a few non-quack-like staccato bursts like one, yet it is something more and less than the sum of its four book-length parts.  It is a tale of a series of shady operations that take place in Iraq after the American occupation and there are a number of mini-mysteries that transpire over its 1000+ pages.  Yet the order of the presentation of these four parts can have an affect on how the reader understands what exactly is happening behind (and in front of) the scenes.
The Kills centers around a man who is now known as Stephen Sutler.  Receiving codes that will provide him access to over $50 million, he manages to elude discovery by law enforcement and those with whom he had conducted some shady business.  Just who is/was Sutler?  How was this heist pulled off and just who has an interest in finding him, dead or alive?
At first, these questions would seem to lie at the heart of an expansive thriller, yet House makes some curious decisions that undermines this premise.  His four narrative parts play fast and loose with narrative time and character presentation.  On the whole, his jumpstart, flashback, seen through another camera lens/angle approach makes the reader pause in her consideration of what she has just read.  His layering of perspectives does add to the character depth, although for those readers who expect a more “traditional” thriller that requires little more than just anticipating ahead a handful of pages instead of digesting what might not have really happened a hundred before, it initially can be a rough adjustment.  Yet by the end of the fourth part, if read in order that is (House has constructed this book so readers can read any of the four sections in an order of their choosing), there are some intriguing revelations…and more than a handful of continued mysteries.
Structurally, I was reminded of Roberto Bolaño’s 2666, not just in the number of interconnected sections, but also in how some of these parts interact with each other.  From Russian gangsters to a more stylized look at Sutler’s character, to a fictitious book, also called “The Kill,” from which a movie has been derived, there are layers of commentary on contemporary society and its pop cultures that House explores to some depth.  For the most part, these commentaries heighten the narrative’s pull, making it easier to read through the sometimes dense descriptions, as the reader wants to learn more about these possible connections between the book/movie and Sutler’s actions/motives.  However, there are times where it felt a bit convoluted, as though House had constructed things so intricately that the narrative begins to flag in places due to the weight of its many moving parts.
Yet despite these occasional structural flaws, The Kills was an enjoyable novel to read.  There is a suitable amount of action for those who enjoy thriller-type stories, while the characterizations and ancillary social commentaries were for the most part integrated well within these four distinct sections.  One of the better action-oriented books I’ve read this year.

2014 Booker Prize finalist: Howard Jacobson, J

October 14th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Before chancing his nose outside his cottage in the morning, Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen turned up the volume on the loop-television, poured tea – taking care to place the cup carelessly on the hall table – and checked twice to be certain that his utility phone was on and flashing.  A facility for making and receiving local telephone calls only – all other forms of electronic communication having been shut down after WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED, to the rapid spread of whose violence social media were thought to have contributed – the utility phone flashed a malarial yellow until someone rang, and then it glowed vermilion.  But it rarely rang.  This, too, he left on the hall table.  Then he rumpled the silk Chinese hallway runner – a precious heirloom – with his shoe. (pp. 5-6)

2010 Booker Prize winner and current finalist Howard Jacobson has been known for comic novels that explore the darker elements of English Jewish society.  In his latest novel, J (actually with two marks through the letter), however, Jacobson eschews even the trappings of comic satire for a tale that might be considered dystopic not so much for the outer trappings of a society after some social upheaval, but for how his characters are developed in relation to an event that is so profound that they refer to it as “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED.”  While the mysteries of that and why Kevern ‘Coco’ Cohen puts two fingers to his mouth when pronouncing certain words that begin with “J” might appeal to readers, it is Jacobson’s probing of how we try to communicate through the silences that we enforce through perfunctory social niceties that make J a fascinating and sometimes disturbing read.

There are a couple of main subplots that dovetail toward the end.  Kevern’s half-stifled “J” talk, which is semi-abandoned through his arc in favor of slightly more direct talk of what has actually transpired over the decades leading up to Kevern’s tale,  is but one small segment of a whole spectrum of social self-silencing that has taken place in Britain after some awful events decades before.  There are no email accounts, no social media, television is strictly regulated, even the language of social discourse has been altered – there is a sense of a great, horrific story lurking behind the stony silences of the newly-altered language itself.  Kevern’s own surname, Cohen, is a clue, but not necessarily the blatant one some might suspect.  Related to this is the seemingly weird behavior of a young adult orphan, Alinn, and how she sees her future and Kevern’s intertwined.  This second subplot, however, is not as well-fleshed as the former, and there are places where their interactions feel forced, at least until the latter part of the novel, where more effort is made to connect the two.

I referenced dystopic fiction above not because it is an easy catch-all term for describing a near-future society that would make for an uneasy dwelling experience for contemporary readers, but because J does something interesting here:  there is not a focus so much on the material aspects of this culture, but instead on how the characters are altered by this new societal order.  Take for instance the half-stifled “j” words said, words like “jazz” or “Jesus” or “joke.”  These are words that have become here “j” words, just as we have today the “N word” and the “C word” to denote words that we know what they mean but we durst not utilize them due to their offensive natures.  We speak around them, half-allude to them, knowing what we want to imply, but not daring to voice directly those darkly talismanic words lest they evoke hatred and contempt.  Therefore, it is interesting to see a similar effect caused by these “j” words through the narrative.  What does it mean to have these seemingly-disconnected words being smothered by their erstwhile speakers?

This I suspect is the main thrust of Jacobson’s book.  There is indeed another “j” word, one that is never really even half-uttered, that does come to dominate the others.  It is the reason behind “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” and how the reader chooses to react to this ultimate “j” word might determine how she comprehends the final parts of the novel.  That “j” word, which I shall not utter here for purposes related to exploring Jacobson’s themes, has led to wholesale surname changes.  It has led to a polite relabeling of urban areas, all in an effort to efface a calamity of violence that unfolded decades before.  It is a cause, if not necessarily the main one, behind the peculiar semantic shifts certain words have taken in the interim.  In not talking about it, the characters are constantly reacting to IT.  The effects this has on Kevern and Alinn’s self-identities, along with certain others, is chilling not because of what is said or done, but because of what is implied and suspected.

J, however, is not a perfect novel.  There are times where the subplots bow down and threaten to collapse under the weight of its narrative pretense.  Alinn’s story in particular does not feel well-developed and more could have been done to develop her conflicted relationship with Kevern.  Even the particulars behind the “j” words and the ominous “WHAT HAPPENED, IF IT HAPPENED” are a bit heavy-handed when more direct allusions are made to them.  This results in a conclusion that feels at times a bit forced, a bit too strident in places and yet strangely empty and devoid of impetus in others.  While this does detract from the power of the setting and its implications, on the whole J is Jacobson’s darkest, most unsettling novel and perhaps his best vehicle for articulating some of his socio-cultural concerns.  It is a worthy finalist for the 2014 Man Booker Prize, but I cannot help but think if it had gone just a bit further, developed its themes of identity and societal self-silencing just a bit more, that it could have become not just a very good novel but a great one.

2014 Prix Medicis finalist: Claudie Hunzinger, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds)

October 8th, 2014 § 2 comments § permalink

Je ne sais pas ce qui s’est dit.  Je sais seulement que ce fut mon tour.  La question était:  Est-ce que les livres nous regardent?  Je savais que les tableaux, eux, oui, les tableaux que nous voyons nous voient du fond de leur éclat lointain – même quand ils sont proches.  Mais pas les livres.  Je ne me suis jamais sentie regardée par Robert Walser, Franz Kafka, Roberto Bolaño, ni par Li Bai, Du Fu ou Emily D.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux.  Ils sont aveugles.  Ils ne nous jugent pas du fond d’une tombe comme si nous étions Caïn; ils ne nous observent pas du haut d’un plafond telles des caméras de surveillance.  Au contraire, ils nous montrent leur dos, tournés ailleurs, vers le secret.  Nos lumières ne les attirent pas, ils émettent la leur, radioactive, qui éclaire jusqu’au mal dont nous sommes pétris et que nous leur avons confié.  Ils sont profonds.  Des puits.  Ils sont l’asile de nos douleurs, de nos blessures.  De nos pires folies.  De nos déraisons.  De nos voix les plus sombres.  Les livres n’ont pas d’yeux, ils ont des voix.  Il arrive que ces voix sortent de leur bouche d’ombre, nous parlent, oui, et ça, je l’expérimentais sans cesse.  Souvent les livres me parlent, et parfois d’une voix argentine, d’une légèreté enfantine, comme exhalée d’un caveau.  Mais de tout cela je n’ai rien pu dire, j’ai seulement répondu non, les livres ne nous regardent pas; et je répétais, n’arrivant plus à passer à autre chose, j’en étais ridicule, c’était impressionnant, je répétais non, les livres ne nous regardent pas, tout en me sentant expédiée en pleine catastrophe, ailleurs, butée, serrée, bloquée, dans mon blouson magique, lequel avait sans doute pour moi d’autres impénétrables desseins.  Et ensuite je suis restée muette comme une attardée mentale.  Jusqu’à la fin. (p. 19, iPad iBooks e-edition)

In Claudie Hunzinger’s 2014 Prix Medicis-longlisted novel, La langue des oiseaux (The Language of Birds in English), language, that of literature and of life, of nature and humanity, plays a central role in the narrative.  It is the medium through which we express ourselves, giving voice to those myriad emotions and thoughts that daily flow through, out, and over us.  Language is also meditation, through which we manage to filter our experiences, leaving us with manageable impressions.  In La langue des oiseaux, these elements, particularly in regard to literature and the understanding of other cultures and languages, are explored to great effect.

The plot is relatively simple:  a writer, Zsa Zsa, crushed by several literary rejections, decides on one autumn day to flee Paris with only a few books and other belongings.  She goes to live in a secluded wooded area, a hermitage almost, where she reflects on the literature of her life and her triumphs and failures so far.  Yet Zsa Zsa is not completely cut off from civilization; she has internet access and she stumbles across a Japanese immigrant, Sayo, who runs an online boutique of sorts, selling boys’ clothes for women.  Their exchanges spark a reaction from Zsa Zsa, leading her to delve further into the “language of birds,” that secret idiom through which so many mysteries withheld from more mundane tongues are at least partially revealed.  It is here, in these musings on language and thought, that Hunzinger’s narrative is at its strongest.

Well-read readers will recognize several writers who influence Zsa Zsa (and presumably, Hunzinger, since this does have some autobiographical elements, if I understand this tale correctly).  Of particular account is the American poet Emily Dickinson, to whom Zsa Zsa refers several times over the course of the story.  There certainly are traces of her and other writers (including those described above in the excerpted quote) in the narrative, particularly in the way Zsa Zsa views the surrounding nature and its denizens.  Hunzinger, however, does not dwell over long on these reminisces; Zsa Zsa is not a mouthpiece for literary appreciation.  Instead, these literary allusions serve to deepen the tale, making it more than just a chance encounter along the road of solitude.  There is an universal quality to Zsa Zsa’s meditations and her later friendship with Sayo.  In their talks about language and meaning, several comments are made that easily could take place between people that we all know.  Like those rare mythological heroes and heroines who can understand the languages of birds and wildlife, we too find ourselves learning new “languages” everyday in order to comprehend better the word around us.

Hunzinger’s prose is evocative, as the above quote reveals.  It freely moves between allusion and direct discourse, usually with a good balance between the two.  Voices and shadows.  Books possessing not eyes, but instead voices.  The narrative structure by itself is not terribly inventive, but the way that Hunzinger describes Zsa Zsa and her worldview, how she interacts with Sayo, those enrich the story greatly, adding enough layers for there to be the sense of something profound unfolding, yet not so much that the story feels bogged down by the weight of its own artifices.  La langue des oiseaux is a charming tale that manages to say more in less than 200 print pages than what most “deep” novels manage to express in 400.  Curious to see tomorrow if it’ll make the Prix Medicis shortlist.  It certainly is a powerful novel that hopefully will be translated into English in the near future.

2014 Booker Prize finalist: Ali Smith, How to be Both

October 7th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Consider this moral conundrum for a moment.

George’s mother says to George who’s sitting in the front passenger seat.

Not says.  Said.

George’s mother is dead.

What moral conundrum?  George says.

The passenger seat in the hire car is strange, being on the side of the driver’s seat is on at home.  This must be a bit like driving is, except without the actual, you know, driving.

Okay.  You’re an artist, her mother says.

Am I?  George says.  Since when?  And is that a moral conundrum?

Ha, ha, her mother says.  Humour me.  Imagine it.  You’re an artist. (p. 3)

Of the six 2014 Man Booker Prize finalists, Ali Smith’s How to be Both might be the most “artistic.”  I say this with scare quotes because often there is something about art that confounds and irritates many.  Whether it is the perceived “extra effort” that is often involved in understanding an art work’s (literary, visual, or performance, they are all the same here) merits or that niggling doubt that the viewer/reader just might be incapable of the requisite empathy in order to grasp just how that particular piece came into being, often such works are set aside in favor of more “tried and true,” less “difficult” pieces.  No, it is not a fair assessment, but it is one that takes place more frequently than any of us are ready to admit.

Yet when one does peer closer at the piece in question and when one does encounter something that captivates them, whether it be a line shadowed just so or a le mot juste or a cadence from an actress or singer that tugs at the heart’s strings, that person is then drawn into the dialogue that is symbolized by the piece or performance in front of her.  How to be Both is at its heart a dialogue that forms across the centuries between a sixteen year-old half-orphaned girl and a fifteenth century Renaissance painter, Francesco del Cossa, whose painting of Saint Vincent Ferrer haunts young George long after her fateful first visit to the Palazzo Schifanoia in Ferrara just a few months prior to her mother’s death.  It is her life, her changing views on it and on art, coupled with the “voice” of del Cossa through his paintings that George observes, that form a gripping dialogue on just what does ars gratia artis mean in this day and age.

How to be Both intertwines these two narratives, one of a modern young woman with her contemporary concerns about how to live with those of fifteenth century Italy and the struggles that del Cossa had in establishing his art, his vision, in a place where the mercenary wars were about to give way a generation later to the ruinous French invasion.  Smith does an outstanding job in establishing these two voices, as George and del Cossa’s concerns are shown in vivid detail.  Smith shapes the narrative to suit this dual voice perspective:  there is a mixture of monologue, dialogue, and a bit of stream of consciousness.  In a less adroit hand, these elements easily could have collapsed under the weight of their artifice, but Smith manages to meld them together in such a fashion that each complements the other, making for a great read.

However, the intricate narrative structure is only just that, a structure around which the story and its themes are constructed.  Here too Smith does a fantastic job in establishing character and motivations.  The exploration of Art is done in a fashion that does not feel trite or treacly; after all, these two characters have suffered much for their eventual understanding of what Art entails.  Each little detail, from hawkers declaiming what they know the piece in question to be to questions of perspective, builds upon each other, creating a literary piece that is stronger than the sum of its already impressive parts.

How to be Both is the most daring of the six shortlisted titles on this year’s Man Booker Prize.  Its language is captivating, its characters are powerfully dynamic despite one not being presented in a “traditional” fashion, its themes are no less ambitious than trying to discern just what “art” truly might be.  In a fairly strong field, it holds its own when it comes to being a novel that can be read and re-read multiple times for greater appreciation.  It may or may not win the award next week, but How to be Both is certainly one of my two favorites from this year’s shortlist.

2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature longlist: Laurie Halse Anderson, The Impossible Knife of Memory

October 6th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

At one level?  None of this mattered.  It was hard enough surviving day to day, both navigating the hordes at Zombie High and listening to the bomb that had started ticking inside my father’s head.  A little flirting with Finn?  That wouldn’t hurt.  But I concluded that it couldn’t go any further.  When we met after school for precalc tutoring, I made sure that there was always a table between us.  And when I was in his car, I kept my backpack on my lap, my face turned to the window and my attitude set to the frost level of “Don’t Touch.”

Despite this strategy, the hordes gossiped about us.  Girls in my gym class asked me flat out what Finn was like.  That’s how I found out that his family had moved to the district only a year earlier and that he had led the swim team to the state title but decided not to swim this year, and no one could figure out why.  I also learned that those same girls were pissed off; they’d assumed he was gay, because why else wouldn’t he have tried to hook up with them before?

I dialed up my serial killer glare and eventually they walked away. (p. 149)

This year has seen several high-profile literary works that touch upon some aspect of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.  From Joyce Carol Oates’ Carthage and Cara Hoffman’s Be Safe I Love You to Iraq veteran Phil Klay’s 2014 National Book Award-longlisted short collection Redeployment, these stories have touched upon how the violence experienced by those returning soldiers have affected them and those that they love.  In Laurie Halse Anderson 2014 National Book Award for Young People’s Literature-longlisted The Impossible Knife of Memory, the deleterious effects of PTSD are explored through the eyes of an “Army brat,” Hayley Kincain, a high school senior who has been on the move for the past five years with her vet/trucker father, Andy, with each trying, seemingly futilely, to escape their issues.

The Impossible Knife of Memory follows mostly Hayley’s point of view, as we see through her jaded eyes her unease about being in yet another new town, with yet another school of teen fish to navigate.  Anderson does an excellent job in capturing the vulnerability behind that cynical façade, as can be seen in the passage above.  Hayley is a very introspective character, one who observes her world around her in acute detail, except when it comes to the central traumas that affect her.  She loves her father, but in lines such as this, it is clear that Andy’s struggles have become such a “normal” part of her life that it is hard for her to conceive of others being happy or free of the issues that affect her and her father:

Our living room smelled a lot like chicken wings and pizza and a little like weed when I walked in the front door.

Dad looked up from the television.  “Hey, princess,” he said with a grin.  “Have a good time?”

I hung up my jacket in the closet.

“Giants are playing,” he said.  “Philly, first quarter.  I saved you some pizza.  Double cheese.”  He frowned.  “What’s that look for?”

“You’re joking, right?”

“You love double cheese.”

“I’m not talking about the pizza.”

“Is it the wings?  You gave up being a vegetarian two years ago.”

“Are we going to play ‘pretend’?”

“Vegetarians can eat double-cheese pizza.”

“It’s not the food,” I said.

“Are you still upset about the cemetery?”

“What?”

Dad muted the television.  “I was thinking about what you said.  I’ll call the cemetery and find out how much those special vases cost.  Mom didn’t like cut flowers, but she hated being outdone by her neighbors, and that headstone looks awful.  Good idea?”  He let Spock lick the pizza grease off his fingers.  “Why are you still wearing the pissy face?”

“Did you run Friday night through the Andy-filter so instead of looking like a total ass, you can feel like you were a hero or something?” (pp. 185-186)

This scene encapsulates many of the central conflicts of The Impossible Knife of Memory:  Andy’s drug use, Hayley’s mom’s death, the willing blindness that Andy has toward his failure to cope with his war experiences, Hayley’s frustrations with him and with her inability to stick long in a place with friends.  Anderson illustrates these conflicts through short, sharp dialogues that cut to the heart of the matter with ease.  Each argument, each time Hayley withdraws from the affections of another semi-loner, Finn, each moment of solitude feeds directly into the subsequent one, until there is a clear sense that Hayley and Andy are flailing their way toward a possible bad ending.

Yet the story does not go full-tilt toward that.  Despite the sense that something ominous is inevitable, the actual conclusion is more nuanced.  Not all failures are final and not all who are lost remain lost in the void of their tortured memories.  For some readers, this might seem like a cop-out, a weakening of the events that lead up to the denouement.  Yet after some consideration, Anderson’s concluding chapters set the stage for the next part of Hayley and Andy’s lives:  recovery.  This does not mean that it is a “happy” conclusion, because for traumas and addictions, recovery is a life-long process with uncertain results.  However, having a bit of hope is more than having none, and in that sense, Hayley and Andy’s stories feel like they have reached a certain stage and that after the story concludes, there are a number of paths they could follow.  Imagining these in turn helps make those scenes already read all the more intimate, because they have established these characters as flawed, dynamic ones with whom we can relate.

Angélica Gorodischer, Palito de naranjo (2014)

October 2nd, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Para empezar, a las mujeres encarceladas nadie las visita nunca.  A los varones sí, siempre.  Siempre la mujer o la madre, y hasta la hija, pero eso es más raro, va los jueves a las dos de la tarde con paquetes de comida y de ropa, a veces con revistas, a veces con un ejemplar de la Biblia.  Eso es maravilloso, no solo porque una ve una cara conocida y porque siente que a alguien le importa que ella esté en donde está, sino porque la visita significa que el tiempo existe.  Es maravilloso porque entre una visita y otra se escanden las horas, los minutos, los meses.  Si no hay visitas el tiempo es un largo, larguísimo intervalo blanquecino entre dos paréntesis, la vida que se va olvidando y la esperanza que va desapareciendo, convirtiéndose en otra cosa, en algo algodonoso y turbio que reclama que una lo vea y lo toque, y una sabe que no hay que rendirse a la tentación de hacerlo porque si lo hace, si toca eso, nunca va a encontrar no digo consuelo, nunca va a encontrar ni la más mínima tranquilidad, ni el más insignificante jirón de sueño.  Pero si alguien llega de visita, si viene este martes o este jueves y una puede imaginar que va a venir el próximo también, entonces el tiempo existe:  hay horas, hay días, hay espera.  El varón encarelado tiene otro horizonte a la vista y en ese horizonte está escrito «cuando yo salga ella va a estar esperándome».  A una mujer nunca la va a estar esperando alguien.  Y ella lo sabe.  Sabe que el afuera va a ser una prolongación del adentro.  Es posible que piense «aquello era preferible a esto».  Y para seguir, la mujer que está en la cárcel no encuentra nunca alguien con quien hablar.  Y no me refiero a conversaciones ni a confidencias.  Me refiero a palabras que van de una persona a otra.  ¿Ha pensado usted alguna vez que cada palabra que se pronuncia es como un morral o un zurrón que contiene carne y sangre y hueso, historia, intenciones y horror, sobre todo horror?  ¿Ese horror que es el precio que una paga por imaginar lo que de un momento al otra le va a suceder?  ¿Se ha dado cuenta de que las palabras lo traen, al horror, digo; de que las palabras no son solo sonidos ni una letra detrás de la otra sino que cada una contiene un mundo? (p. 29, iPad iBooks e-edition)

Argentine writer Angélica Gorodischer has had several genre careers within her lengthy writing life.  From a SF writer in the 1970s to a fantasy writer in the 1980s to a contemporary fiction writer who focuses on feminism and society for the past two decades, her works, diverse as they are, have a few things in common:  PoV characters who probe deeply into their societies’ fault lines and prose that makes these examinations feel not just important, but vital for understanding our own selves and our own places in societies that may or may not be conducive for the lives that we wish to live.  In her just-released novel, Palito de naranjo (Orange Stick in English), Gorodischer utilizes a singular character, Féry, to tell of not just the burdens that the dispossessed experience today, but also the joys that they might experience on the other side of suffering.

Palito de naranjo is dialogue-heavy; almost the entire novel is devoted to the conversations that the aged Féry, who has experienced privation and incarceration, relates to an interviewer.  The stories that Féry has embedded within her comments on her rough life (the lengthy quote above is about the different prison lives that men and women experience; Féry notes the numerous visits that male prisoners receive weekly from female relatives and compares that to the near-non-existent visitors for female prisoners) are fascinating.  Characters appear in one place, living solely through Féry’s ability to make them seem alive even when they are present only for a singular moment or sentence before giving way to another.  As Féry talks, the contours of her life comes into greater focus.  The cumulative effect is to present, similar to a finely-detailed mosaic, a life that is fascinating for its experiences and its insights into modern life.

The prose here is nearly pitch-perfect.  A dialogue-heavy novel can be tricky, as the author risks loses the reader’s attention can wander if there are not breaks in the conversation and it can become easy to confound which speaker is talking at any given moment.  Yet Gorodischer manages to make this into a vivid character sketch, as Féry’s detailed accounts of her life and the people she has come to know works well within the strictures of dialogue description of these others.  As Féry talks, she begins to describe situations and people that are notable despite never speaking of their own accord.  We come to understand Féry more through her descriptions of these fellow travelers than we might have if these characters were presented through direct interactions with Féry in flashback sequences.

There is no single concrete plot here, instead it is through Féry’s numerous recollections of her past that we come to see that it is her life, her time as a prostitute and an inmate, that is the plot arc we are following.  We see her at critical points in her life, sometimes in a bitter lamentation over the social inequalities that women experience in all facets of their lives, other times in her reminisces of others in her life, and the crises that she describes (and has largely overcome in her path toward some measure of contentment, if not full happiness) feel real because of the way they are related to us.  There are no lulls to the tale; Féry slowly yet steadily builds toward a solid, moving conclusion.  Palito de naranjo may differ significantly in form and purpose than say Kalpa Imperal or Bajo las jubeas en flor, but it is no less of a significant work than these two older works of Gorodischer’s.  Highly recommended for those who are fans of her earlier fictions.

Discussion of three essays taken from Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel (1986)

September 29th, 2014 § 0 comments § permalink

Below are three articles that I wrote in June 2010 in response to three essays in Milan Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.  In light of continuing discussions in social media on points related to these, I thought I would present all three together in order for them to serve as a meditation on these issues that continue to generate discussion as to what constitutes “art” and “the novel.”

“The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes” and a refutation of “there are no good nor bad books”

 

At the suggestion of Zoran Živković, I have begun reading Milan Kundera’s collection of essays, The Art of the Novel.  I plan on writing seven essays [ended up being only three] based on something that I read within each of his essays.  First up is the opening essay, “The Depreciated Legacy of Cervantes.”  It is fitting that I read this essay today, considering certain comments I’ve read on Twitter and various blogs, including one by author Mark Charan Newton, that have claimed that “there are no good nor bad books.”  This argument, misguided and wrong-headed as I believe it to be, actually fits in well with some of Kundera’s points about the “depreciated” role of the novel.

Kundera devotes much of his first essay to outlining the history of the European novel from Cervante’s seminal Don Quijote to the late 20th century.  In particular, he focuses on how the limns of adventure and wonder within the novel have shrunk over time, until the notion of “adventure” has come to contain almost as many pejorative aspects as it did wondrous ones.  Also, the issue of “time” has become more and more regulated due to the rise of History as this conjured agent of delimitation.  Here Kundera explains this:

Half a century after Diderot, in Balzac, the distant horizon has disappeared like a landscape behind those modern structures, the social institutions:  the police, the law, the world of money and crime, the army, the State.  In Balzac’s world, time no longer idles happily by as it does for Cervantes and Diderot.  It has set forth on the train called History.  The train is easy to board, hard to leave.  But it isn’t at all fearsome yet, it even has its appeal; it promises adventure to every passenger, and with it fame and fortune.

Later still, for Emma Bovary, the horizon shrinks to the point of seeming a barrier.  Adventure lies beyond it, and the longing becomes intolerable.  Within the monotony of the quotidian, dreams and daydreams take on importance.  The lost infinity of the outside world is replaced by the infinity of the soul.  The great illusion of the irreplaceable uniqueness of the individual – one of Europe’s finest illusions – blossoms forth. (p. 8)

It is in this shrinking horizon, where the imaginative yearnings have been directed inward until a point is reached where the fantastical has been internalized to where even fancy has become something “mental,” that Kundera explores in the middle sections of his essay.  He notes that with these changes have come calls for the “death of the novel.”  From the Futurists to the Surrealists and to all avant-gardes in-between, they have seen the novel, Kundera argues, as being a historical relic; it has “dropped off the road of progress.”  But the novel is much more resilient than that.  Whether it be the inner fragility of the movements, political and artistic alike, that have proclaimed the “death” of the novel (or of History or of Politics), the novel form has survived to the present day, albeit in a different form over the past two centuries’ span.  How does Kundera explain the novel’s persistence?

But hasn’t the novel come to the end of the road by its own internal logic?  Hasn’t it already mined all its possibilities, all its knowledge, and all its forms?  I’ve heard the history of the novel compared to a seam of coal long since exhausted.  But isn’t it more like a cemetery of missed opportunities, of unheard appeals?  There are four appeals to which I am especially responsive. (p. 15)

Kundera discusses four appeals:  the appeals of play, dream, thought, and time.  Before novelists shackled themselves to the empty throne of Realism, there were more “light” and “playful” novels, novels such as Sterne’s Tristram Shandy and Diderot’s Jacques le Fataliste that contained possibilities that the later Realist novels failed to capitalize.  Although Kundera does not discuss the separate “fantasy” offshoot that developed in reaction to this shift toward Realism, there could be a corollary to his first “appeal” referring to how a byproduct of this desire for “play” was the rise of settings in which both the author and reader alike have explicitly accepted to be irreal and impossible.  The appeal of “dream” is also associated with this missed opportunity by some writers to combine the irreal and the real to create a state where reality and dream intermingle and influence each other.

The appeals of “thought” and “time” are harder to put into words.  Kundera posits that if novelists were to “marshal around the story all the means – rational and irrational, narrative and contemplative – that could illuminate man’s being; could make of the novel the supreme intellectual synthesis (p. 16).”  What truly is revealed in most novels about our favorite topic, our own selves?  As for “time,” Kundera argues that narrative “time” has become too constricted and that perhaps it would be for the best if “time” could be broadened or dilated out, to where it is not a weighty millstone tied around the narrative’s neck.

However, it is in the final two parts of Kundera’s essay where I find counterarguments to claims made that it is “impossible” to judge if a novel is “good” or bad.”  Those who usually make this argument tend to note that so much depends upon the vantage point of the observer and how there are too many subjectives involved for there to be any true “objective” rationale for sorting through the qualities of each word.  That is a facile argument.  It is too easy to abdicate the ability to judge and measure, all in the name of fearing that one is “wrong” or that someone is “biased.”  It is, as Kundera notes, a “reduction” in which “Husserl’s ‘world of life’ is fatally obscured and being is forgotten. (p. 17)”  Kundera goes on to argue:

Now, if the novel’s raison d’être is to keep “the world of life” under a permanent light and to protect us from “the forgetting of being,” is it not more than ever necessary today that the novel should exist?

Yes, so it seems to me.  But alas, the novel too is ravaged by the termites of reduction, which reduce not only the meaning of the world but also the meaning of works of art.  Like all of culture, the novel is more and more in the hands of the mass media; as agents of the unification of the planet’s history, the media amplify and channel the reduction process; they distribute throughout the world the same simplifications and stereotypes easily acceptable by the greatest number, by everyone, by all mankind.

***

This common spirit of the mass media, camouflaged by political diversity, is the spirit of our time.  And this spirit seems to me contrary to the spirit of the novel.

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of complexity.  Every novel says to the reader:  “Things are not as simple as you think.”  That is the novel’s eternal truth, but it grows steadily harder to hear amid the din of easy, quick answers that come faster than the question and block it off.  In the spirit of our time, it’s either Anna or Karenin who is right, and the ancient wisdom of Cervantes, telling us about the difficulty of knowing and the elusiveness of truth, seems cumbersome and useless.  (pp. 17-18)

This is a key point he makes here.  Today, it is too easy to say it’s an “either and/or” situation and leave it at that.  There is no wrestling that takes place; all is shrugged off with “well, it’s a good or bad book, depending upon how you look at it.”  Such an attitude is meant to absolve the reader of any responsibility, but when responsibility on the part of the reader is abdicated, then the remaining two legs of the Author-Text-Reader tripod threaten to topple.  Truth, whether it be some commonly-held universal or individual particles based on received fact and acquired analysis, is not the same as a truism that is passively and blithely passed around like a joint.  Here, Kundera harkens back to Cervantes’ famous phrase on history in the first part of Don Quijote to make the counter-argument that truth (and by extension, the ability to discern good from bad, quality from crap), cumbersome and useless as it may be, is something that is worth wrestling with and fighting over.  As for the issue of perspective, Kundera continues:

The novel’s spirit is the spirit of continuity:  each work is an answer to preceding ones, each work contains all the previous experience of the novel.  But the spirit of our time is firmly focused on a present that is so expansive and profuse that it shoves the past off our horizon and reduces time to the present moment only.  Within this system the novel is no longer a work (a thing made to last, to connect the past with the future) but one current event among many, a gesture with no tomorrow. (pp. 18-19)

Too often, people want to made an immediate, snap decision.  There is little confrontation with the idea that the novel says many things to many people at the same time.  Sure, this multiplicity of viewpoints may be taken, upon first glance, as being ammunition for the notion that one cannot judge if a novel is “good” or “bad,” but a deeper delving reveals the opposite.  It is through individuals’ processing of what is contained within the novel and the realization that there is more than just a single take on it that forces the Reader to realize that there are not just other Readers out there, but that the Text is a dynamic entity that can yield varying levels of information about itself, its world, the reader, and the reader’s world.  A good text allows for more levels of interaction, with as few impediments as possible.  A poor text, on the other hand, will either yield up all of its secrets upon a cursory glance or it will be so opaque in its mechanics as to prevent a diligent reader from being able to harvest its crop of knowledge.

Doubtless, there are those who are going to argue that works such as Gene Wolfe’s The Book of the New Sun might fall under this “poor novel” category because of the perceived difficulty in harvesting all of its treasure troves of theme and plot.  To that I would counter by noting that such a novel is constructed in a form upon which it can be interpreted on multiple levels; there is more for those who wish to delve deeper and to ask further questions of this text.  Instead of the text impeding the reader, perhaps the argument could be made that there are readers who are so inclined to take the surface for the bedrock that they have impeded themselves from considering further the novel’s purposes and potential meanings.

So while it is easy to make the argument that it just depends upon where one stands if a work is “good” or “bad,” in reality such assertions are a fallacy; discernment is not just an individual’s tool, but also a societal one.  After all, since individual members of a society are influenced by their relationships with their native cultures and to any other cultures to which they may have been exposed, how we value ideas, especially those expressed in novel form, is a much more critical issue than just “well, your mileage may vary on this book.”  It is through individuals wrestling with how to discern what is quality and what is not that a rough consensus is formed.  It is not a perfect, immutable consensus; people, after all, are too flighty for that.  Instead, it is a portrait of the Reader as a global unit that serves to illuminate just how that Reader (singular and group entity alike) has come to process and to sort which works will endure and which will be relegated to the dustbins.  To argue that relative judgment is absolute ignores the evidence that in the aggregate, there are works that are enduring and those that are not.  The issue of the novel, beyond that of its good/bad qualities, resides not in the future, but in our pasts and presents.  After all, as Kundera notes, the future can be a horrible judge.

 

“Sixty-three Words” and the transformative power of words in translations

 

Growing up, a traditional retort to namecalling was “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never harm me.”  Nearly thirty years later, it has become evident that there is something key being left unsaid in that ditty.  Whether or not words may “harm” someone, the fact is that words serve to transform people, or at least their surroundings and their relationships with those surroundings.  Words form bonds that shape our subjective existence and if a word is misapplied or misunderstood, great changes can occur.

Nowhere is the transformative power of words more evident than in translation.  In his sixth essay in The Art of the Novel and in his Author’s Note to The Joke, Czech author Milan Kundera discusses how translations can affect the reading and processing of a work.  Flaubert famously declared that he sought le seul mot juste when writing.  Translators (taking into account the Latin translatio, which roughly means “transference”) are expected to transfer or bring across (delving further into the semantics of the Latin original) into a new language as much of the syntax and semantics of the original as possible, to find that single just or good word.  It is a noble goal, but oh is it a Sisyphean task!

Kundera regales the reader (in French for this tale, despite the novels at hand originally being written in Czech) with horror stories of translators that reordered his novels’ chapters, of deleted scenes, of the style being made more ornate in the translated tongue than what Kundera had intended, and even of sentences being chopped up and puréed to suit the fancies of the translators rather than the aims of the author.  Traduttore tradittore indeed.

This is a very sensitive issue for writer, translator, and reader alike.  Personally, this topic has been weighing on my head more and more in recent months.  Although I have blogged about translations before and have provided samples of how I would have translated passages differently from the published translations, I no longer speak as an amateur translator, for I have already cashed a check in payment for a translation which is scheduled to be published later this year [that was my translation of Augusto Monterroso's "Mister Taylor," which appeared in the World Fantasy-winning anthology, The Weird, edited by Ann and Jeff VanderMeer].  This is a very serious matter.  After all, Kundera says:

…translations are everything

The writer who determines to supervise the translations of his books finds himself chasing after hordes of words like a shepherd after a flock of wild sheep – a sorry figure to himself, a laughable one to others. (pp. 121-122)

For the translator, the task is different but equally risible for those who have not undertaken such a task.  As flexible as English is in some aspect (look at all of the names we have for shades of color), in other aspects it is a rigid language, locked into a pattern where in declarative sentences the subject ought to come before the verb and that multiple layers of dependent clauses are frowned upon, if not actively discouraged.  But in other languages, nouns and adjectives can pile one atop the other, with direct and indirect objects indicated by case endings, with the verb packing its punch at the end, or sometimes the middle or even the beginning, depending upon the effect that the author aimed to achieve by the placement of one word after another in order to create an aural tapestry that pleases and instructs the reader as to the author’s intentions.

Now take that sentence and imagine how it might look like in another language.  Say, for example, Spanish.  Would I choose to have everything in the indicative mood, or could I alter the intent somewhat by recasting it as a contrary-to-fact subjective mood?  Would the ordering of the clauses be the same, or would there be the need to shift them around in order to create a different effect?  And if so, how much would the meanings change with the syntax?

This reordering in translation is very evident to me as I am currently re-reading (and yet reading anew) Serbian author Goran Petrović’s Ситничарница Код спрћне пуке in the Serbian original (for the first time) and re-reading the Spanish translation, La Mano de la Buena Fortuna.  Although my Serbian is very rudimentary to say the least, I understand enough now to see quite clearly that his translator, Dubravka Sužnjević, had to invert clauses and to reconstruct several multi-clausal sentences in order to approximate what Petrović had crafted in the original Serbian.  A reader of this story in Spanish would in no sense get the same story as would a Serbian writer – the emphasis on certain words would have shifted necessarily in order to accommodate what that Spanish-reading reader might expect.

The importance of a single word, placed just so, is even more apparent when a reader such as myself is reading two non-native languages and finds himself thinking about the passages in a third, remotely-related language.  We are often so careless with our expressions, barely regarding just how we say and why we say what we say.  Writers and translators have to hone their words, creating an artistic tapestry that a reader can interpret and translate as s/he sees fit.

Kundera became quite frustrated in having to pore through the various translations to see if his intent was borne across relatively intact.  At a French editor/friend’s urging, he undertook writing down a list of sixty-three words that encapsulated the semantic battles being fought in his novels.  While I will not list those sixty-three words or those “definitions” that Kundera supplied for them, I will pose this question:  When faced with the barely definable, how do you reach out and grasp it?  For example, how do you represent “being” and “beauty?”  Do you shade their meanings, leaving it up to the reader to decide how the author intends for these to be examined, or do you, if you are a translator, try to capture as much of the essence and power of those words in a translation that reflects not on the translator’s understanding of the words, but on those of the original author?

Words have a great power.  The difference between “shit” and “manure” is not one of smell, but in how each is viewed in relation to other words surrounding them.  So too is the relationship between a faithful and unfaithful translation.  Something may be lost in all translations, but just what and how and why that is so important is what lies at the heart of the matter.  Words, especially those in translation, do transform how we view the situation, n’est-ce pas?

 

“Dialogue on the Art of the Novel” and other related dialogues

 

The dialogue perhaps is one of the most important forms of communication available to humans.  With it, differences in views, understandings of the world and its inhabitants, or strategies to approaching the wonders and mysteries of this planet are bridged.  This is not to say that those who engage in dialogue end up with a homogeneous viewpoint; this should never be the sole aim of the dialogue, even in those situations where viewpoints become aligned.  No, the dialogue allows its participants and those contemplating those participants the ability to converse about matters that otherwise might be outside the purview of any single person.

In regards to literature, dialogue is extremely important.  Not just within the plot of a story when characters are conversing back and forth, revealing information and thoughts for the reader to process, but on other, perhaps deeper levels.  In his dialogue with Christian Salmon, Czech writer Milan Kundera delves into the various dialogues one can have with the novel at hand.  It is important to note that this third essay is actually the first part of a two-part edited conversation (or rather, dialogue, as the author prefers) on matters of novel interpretation and understanding.  In another of his essays, “Sixty-three Words,” Kundera mentions how much he hates the tyranny that is the edited interview.  I withheld discussing that point in my second essay on his essays precisely because I wanted to shift it to discussing the second essay in Kundera’s The Art of the Novel.

A dialogue is a two-way street; there is sharing and there is absorption of ideas and viewpoints.  Over the course of the past six years, I have come to know several authors.  But I have always wondered why it was that for those whom I conversed with more frequently via email before interviewing them, those interviews felt a bit “flat” to me and that the questions and answers felt a bit stiff and unnatural in places.  I do not believe it is due to the Q&A nature of email interviews; I suspect much the same would have occurred if it had been a magazine-style edited phone or in-person interview.  But the real issue, I suspect and which Kundera’s comments have reinforced, is that the traditional interview formats do not allow for much dialogue; the interviewer controls the pace and flow, as s/he asks the questions and the interviewee is mostly relegated to reacting to those questions.  There is little of the back-and-forth that is found in true conversations and dialogues.

The same could often be said of reviews.  The average reviewer, whether it be an online or print reviewer, often does not enter into a dialogue with his/her subject.  The Text is something to be drained of information and spat forth upon the printed/electronic page to be consumed by that review’s readers.  In the case of complex, multi-layered texts, such a review approach is tantamount to strip mining; the textual landscape of that novel is devastated by the ripping out of a few choice quotes or passages, with no integration of the whole into the review narrative.  There is no dialogue that occurs in those novels; the reviewer just plunders the surface of the Text and moves on.

But there is so much more to a Text than just the reading of it for content.  Salmon and Kundera delve deeper, exploring just how important dialogue is in the crafting of the art of the novel.  Below is one key element of this delving, beginning with Salmon’s questioning of Kundera’s concept of the novel:

C.S.:  Your conception of the novel, then, could be defined as a poetic meditation on existence.  Yet your novels have not always been understood in that way.  They contain many political events that have provoked sociological, historical, or ideological interpretations.  How do you reconcile your interest in social history with your conviction that a novel examines primarily the enigma of existence?
M.K.:  Heidegger characterizes existence by an extremely well-known formulation:  in-der-Welt-sein, being-in-the-world.  Man does not relate to the world as subject to object, as eye to painting; not even as actor to stage set.  Man and the world are bound together like the snail to its shell:  the world is part of man, it is his dimension, and as the world changes, existence (in-der-Welt-sein) changes as well.  Since Balzac, the world of our being has a historical nature, and characters’ lives unfold in a realm of time marked by dates.  The novel can never rid itself of that legacy from Balzac.  Even Gombrowicz, who invents fantastical, improbable stories, who violates all the rules of verisimilitude, cannot escape it. His novels take place in a time that has a date and is thoroughly historical.  But two things should not be confused:  there is on the one hand the novel that examines the historical dimension of human existence, and on the other the novel that is the illustration of a historical situation, the description of a society at a given moment, a novelized historiography.  You’re familiar with all those novels about the French Revolution, about Marie Antoinette, or about the year 1914, about collectivization in the USSR (for or against it), or about the year 1984; all those are popularizations that translate non-novelistic knowledge into the language of the novel.  Well, I’ll never tire of repeating:  The novel’s sole raison d’être is to say what only the novel can say. (pp. 35-36)

But there are other dialogues as well, namely that of Reader and Author, Author and Text, as well as Reader and Text.  Kundera’s view on dialogue with the novel is a very active one, almost too aggressively so.  In discussing his stories, he phrases the dialogues he has had with his texts in ways that almost seem to be that of declaring the dictatorship of the Author in determining the interactions with the Text.  But in this particular passage, I want to engage with Kundera’s words in a way perhaps different from what he intended or maybe what he believes.  While I do agree that verisimilitude has bound novel forms ever tighter to those constraints found in Histories, I cannot help but wonder if in this particular dialogue Kundera may have overlooked just how authors can free themselves from the expectations created by the received truths found in dates and time.

Some of the best writers I have read have overcome the strictures that Kundera notes that bound even the likes of Gombrowicz by simply eliminating the ties that bind.  Poe’s fictions never contained a single solid date; this allowed for more freedom in manipulating the time of fictional events.  Saramago’s fictions never contain character names, only descriptions assigned to characters, in addition to the unmooring of the narrative from a real or imagined date or “past.”  Readers confronting these narratives which are divorced from time/space/nomenclature either have to enter into a dialogue with that novel, trying to understand what the Text is saying, how it is saying it, and why the Author perhaps chose to construct that Text that way.

Authors perhaps view the primary dialogue as being between them and their Texts.  To some extent, there is some truth to it.  There may be allusions contained within the text to events which only the Author or those close to the Author may understand.  However vigorous Authors may claim that they conceived their Texts with themselves as being the principal Audience, once a Text is made visible to others, the Text then can be free to be entered into dialogues which may diminish or even exclude the Author. For example, take Harper Lee’s classic novel, To Kill a Mockingbird.  Whenever I re-read it, as I am currently doing for the first time in several years, I like to engage myself with the Text, taking not just Lee’s portrayals of Southern life in the mid-1930s as being a reflection of cruel, capricious realities then, but also as a narrative on elements in my own life that have largely disappeared in my lifetime.  Perhaps Lee wrote the novel in part to reflect these shifts that have taken place in Southern societies over the past century, but I would suspect that such a reading, complementary but not wholly subservient to the primary narrative on Race, might not jibe completely with her; she is, after all, two generations older than me, and our memories of vanishing youth contain different milestones.

But yet dialogues like mine are what make the Novel so important.  If the Author-Text dialogue were to be the only primary dialogue occurring, then there would not be as much conversation, as the Author would be dictating the Text to the Reader.  However, if a Reader enters into a dialogue with a Text and thus comes into fleeting contact with the Author and seeks to understand more about both Text and Author, this opens up possibilities for the Text to be interpreted and reinterpreted in numerous, exciting, and illuminating fashions long after the Author is buried and the Text’s first edition is a relic.  For as long as there are readers seeking to find more than just content (the strip mining of the novel) and instead seek to open themselves up for possible change through the course of entering into a dialogue with a Text, the art of Reading (itself a component in the composition of the Art of the Novel) will flourish.