“Such are the perfections of fiction...Everything it teaches is useless insofar as structuring your life: you can’t prop up anything with fiction. It, in fact, teaches you just that. That in order to attempt to employ its specific wisdom is a sign of madness...There is more profit in an hour’s talk with Billy Graham than in a reading of Joyce. Graham might conceivably make you sick, so that you might move, go somewhere to get well. But Joyce just sends you out into the street, where the world goes on, solid as a bus. If you met Joyce and said 'Help me,' he’d hand you a copy of Finnegans Wake. You could both cry.” – Gilbert Sorrentino, Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things

Friday, February 25, 2011

Sergio De La Pava's New Novel

I've just been informed by De La Pava's publisher that his second novel, currently entitled Personae, will be published "soon", and very likely this Spring (that's the Northern Hemisphere Spring). As anyone who's read his first novel, A Naked Singularity, knows, this is incredibly exciting news--and, in what's already shaping up to be a very strong year for literature, this is easily my most-anticipated book of 2011.

New Bolano Novel Published in Spanish...

I missed this (apparently it came out earlier this month), but Anagrama has published yet another "novel" found amongst Bolano's papers after his death. Entitled Los Sinsabores del Verdadero Policia (which, in my feeble Spanish, I'd render as something like The Sorrows of Honest Policemen) it's a 300-page book, that, according to what I can understand of the article I read about it (which you can read here, but it's in Spanish), includes such characters from 2666 as Amalfitano and Archimboldi. Apparently the book is part of the material Bolano was writing for 2666, but sits alongside the narrative rather than being part of it (much in the way that Amulet is part of the same story as The Savage Detectives, but still its own novel). Apparently it's very much a novel full of "echoes and self-plagiarism" from Bolano's earlier work, including moments that reference The Savage Detectives, Llamadas Telefonicas (Telephone Calls) and Distant Star. Anyway, I probably won't get to it in Spanish (I had to give up on El Tercer Reich last year--I'm just too slow reading in Spanish), but hopefully it will see an English translation soon enough.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

A Brief History of Bespoke Bookselling in New York Circa 1916

'The [Sunwise Turn] bookstore opened in 1916 on Thirty-first Street just east of Fifth Avenue...The decor was designed by Arthur Davies...who had been a principal organizer of the famous Amoury Show in 1913. Davies colored the walls a "burning orange" and worked the other colors of the prism into the woodwork and detailing...The shop was lavish in displaying "beautiful pieces of sculpture and textiles and paintings"...But the emphasis on display and exhibition also stemmed from less personal considerations. When planning the store, Jenison and Mowbray Clarke had borne in mind "that an art dealer needs only five patrons buying $20,000 a year to keep him afloat, and that if we could have fifty patrons who bought $500 worth of books a year, we would be safe."...But this attempt to assimilate the bookstore to the art gallery, to operate on the principles derived from art dealers, proved difficult in actual practice, for the two owners soon discovered "how few people there are, except collectors, who buy $500 worth of books a year." The shop turned out to be a paradox: a store could not survive if it relied on only "fifty patrons," and yet it also could not survive by selling to a mass of undifferentiated buyers, since the profit margin on books was simply too small (roughly 30 percent at this time). To survive and succeed, the store had to sell other wares (such as stationery), goods with higher profit margins that would offset the low return on books...Jenison discovered through experience that only collectors spend five hundred dollars on books each year and that rare books bring in larger profits; these larger margins were critical to the store's survival and success. The Sunwise Turn, in short, exhibited paintings, textiles, and sculptures for the same reason that it pursued an extensive trade in rare books and signed editions: profit margins on them supplemented the meager returns on ordinary books, and they attracted an elite of cultured well-to-do clients whose every purchase was not only larger but more profitable. To thrive, a bookstore needed not just readers but a core group of collector-patrons.
         There was a second reason as well. The display of textiles and artworks also fostered a distinctive marketing profile...Every feature of the store--the decor, the stationery, even the bookwrappings--was marshaled to this end. "The sale of thousands of books strayed into our shop because we wrapped them in curious brilliant packages. Some artists who worked on the designs made them so deliriously lovely that it was difficult to make up one's mind ever to open them." Yet the unremitting emphasis on display and image, as such remarks suggest, could lead to a paradoxical state of affairs, one in which active readers were slowly replaced with passive consumers, mere buyers who were less engaged with a book's contents and more bedazzled by its wrappings. The attention given to rare books and artworks, the insistence on exhibition, display, ambience, packaging--all originally conceived as supplements to the core activity of bookselling--inexorably altered the relations among the store's functions. Buying was no longer a means to an experience of reading but an experience in its own right, an autonomous activity that threatened to overshadow and replace the reading event that it was meant to facilitate.'
                                                       --Lawrence  Rainey Institutions of Modernism, 66-7.

McSweeneys fans and other print fetishists, take note--you're still living in this contradiction (and I am, too, for that matter).

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Book Review: Visitation

By Jenny Erpenbeck
New Directions

Jenny Erpenbeck’s Visitation is yet another work of fiction that’s not quite a book of short stories and not quite a novel either. Yes, each individual piece in this collection could stand on its own as a story, but—taken together—there’s a much larger narrative scope than readers could expect from ‘just’ a linked collection of short stories. Most of the stories revolve around a piece of property on a lake in the country outside of Berlin, and the fate of this property serves as a synecdoche for the history of Germany in the 20th century. Moreover, the stories are further connected by a prologue and epilogue, as well as a series of brief episodes relating to a gardener who maintains the property over most of the period the book covers.
    Given that the stories cover an enormous sweep of history, including both World Wars, the Holocaust, and East Germany under communist rule, the stories are (legitimately) quite serious and sombre, although brief moments of playfulness and humour occasionally do shine through. But this book works for the reason that Erpenbeck simply writes beautiful, restrained prose and always frames her tales in oblique ways, so that large topics are approached from a fresh and unexpected angles. Consider the opening story, called ‘The Wealthy Farmer and his Four Daughters’, which is about a marriage, but opens by recounting the local superstitions about how a wedding day should be conducted:
    ‘When a woman gets married, she must not sew her own dress. The dress may not even be made in the house where she lives. It must be sewn elsewhere, and during the sewing a needle must not be broken. The fabric for a wedding dress may not be ripped, it must be cut with scissors. If an error is made while the fabric is being cut, this piece of fabric may no longer be used, instead a new piece of the same material must be purchased.’
    Erpenbeck repeats these platitudes throughout the story, and they do an exceptionally economical job of bringing the reader into the culture and society of late 19th-Century Germany—particularly illuminating the role of women in rural society at that time. And this is what is so exceptional about Erpenbeck’s work—she is able to convey an incredible breadth of experience through small gestures that suggests the scope of a much larger narrative without needing to state it explicitly.
    In ‘The Architect’, we learn about the designer of the house on this property, but we learn about his plans for it precisely at the moment he has been forced to leave, due to the coming of World War I. These details are not insignificant, either, since the unusual design of the house—including a secret room—comes to play an important role in later stories, like ‘The Red Army Officer’. Another story that plays with similar themes is ‘The Girl’, which is about a young Jewish girl attempting to hide from the Nazis in a hidden compartment; Erpenbeck’s depiction of her containment and the inevitably of her discovery is simultaneously brutal and deeply moving.
    Visitation is a marvel of what can be achieved through precise, minimal prose. Conveying the depth and complexity of this relatively short book is virtually impossible in such a small space of time, but any fan of either short stories or contemporary, European literature needs to rush out and buy this book now.

Monday, February 21, 2011

My Interview with Verity La

Over the weekend, Alec Patric at Verity La posted an interview with me, which you can read here. Alec, much to his credit (and as his really interesting Verity La interviews always do), eschewed the normal writer-interview questions, and we got to talk about a lot of different topics, including being an expatriate seppo, the persistence of Modernism, Joyce vs. Hemmingway and the relationship between literary criticism and 'average' readers. Anyway, I enjoyed it--but whether or not you do is a separate question . . .

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Book Review: Spurious

By Lars Iyer
Melville House Publishing

Lars Iyer’s debut novel, Spurious, is about two British intellectuals who travel around Europe, drinking and talking about such topics as literature, continental philosophy and how they have failed to achieve their dreams—but if this description sounds dreary, it’s only an illustration of the inability of a plot summary to convey the actual experience of reading a novel. Spurious is a hysterically funny comic novel comprised almost entirely of conversations between its two protagonists, W., a sharp-tongued scholar who constantly bemoans his inability to understand complicated maths, and Lars, a portly, middle-aged academic whose apartment is slowly succumbing to an untraceable damp and who wastes much of his time writing down all of the things that W. says and posting them to a blog (and, indeed, Spurious began its life in a blog of the same name written by Lars Iyer, who is, of course, a scholar and an expert on the work of French author and critic Maurice Blonchot).
                For all of its intellectual references to Kafka, Blanchot, Kant and Schelling, the focus of the book is on the close-but-dysfunctional relationship of the two main characters (indeed the tone and form of Spurious isn’t entirely dissimilar to the film Withnail and I, and fans of that movie would almost certainly enjoy this novel). Most of their conversations begin with W. asking such questions of Lars as these: ‘When did you know you were a failure? When was it you knew you’d never have a single thought of your own—not one?’ and the joy is in watching their semi-serious attempts to answer these absurdities. W. and Lars belong to a long tradition of great comedic duos, from Laurel and Hardy to Vladimir and Estragon from Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot, but there’s also a good deal of fun at the expense of scholarly life in the grand tradition of academic satire, such as in this passage about the publication of W.’s most recent book:
                ‘W.’s book has come out, he says. His editor went down to dine with W. and brought him twenty copies of his own book . . . His book is better than him, W. and I both agree. It’s greater. What’s it about?, I ask him of a particularly difficult section. He’s got no idea, he says.’
                This book is full of wonderful, little comic scenes, most of them initiated by W.’s barbs at his friend Lars; indeed, this is suggested in the title Spurious, which technically refers to a false correlation or inference, but in this instance could similarly describe the book’s many verbal spurs—W. attacks and insults Lars in a way that’s only possible within the confines of a close relationship. And for all of its highbrow references, the novel is also written in a surprisingly plain and simple language and it’s not afraid to go lowbrow for a laugh (i.e. for a book that’s got a lot of references to philosophy, there are also quite a few dick jokes).
                Spurious is one of the funniest books I’ve read in years, and I can also say that I enjoyed reading Spurious more than any novel I’ve read this year—it’s just bad, unclean, mean-spirited fun in the best possible way. But Spurious also manages to find real warmth and humanity in the discourse of two marginal misanthropes without ever swerving into easy sentimentality. Buy one copy for yourself and extra copies for those friends you have who always end up talking about intellectual topics at parties—trust me, they need to read this book, if only to remember that the overexamined life is also not worth living.

Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book Review: Night Soul and Other Stories

Night Soul and Other Stories
By Joseph McElroy
Dalkey Archive

Despite the fact that he’s been publishing books for over 40 years and has won just about every prestigious fellowship that exists in the United States, Joseph McElroy has never achieved the notoriety of his contemporaries, like Don Delillo, Thomas Pynchon, or even, for that matter, the still-criminally-underrated William Gaddis. In publishing circles, McElroy is often best-known for his 1192-page novel Women and Men (by all accounts, a masterpiece), which has the dubious distinction of allegedly being the most-remaindered novel of all time (indeed, I have a first-edition hardback of Women and Men that I picked up in an op-shop five years ago, and which stares out at me from my bookshelf like a dare). But for any reader looking for a place to start with McElroy’s fiction, his ‘new’ collection of short stories, Night Soul and Other Stories (which were, in fact, written over a period of 30 years), is an excellent way to become acquainted with McElroy’s unique and mesmerising style.
            McElroy’s work—like the work of those writers he is often compared to—is indubitably difficult, but not in the way that most readers conceive of a book as being difficult; Night Soul and Other Stories won’t overwhelm you with big words, sentences that sprawl for pages at a time or overtly erudite allusions (although there are certainly erudite allusions). Rather, McElroy’s prose works by making language itself strange; he has a (wonderful) habit of using everyday words in unexpected ways that can make an otherwise grammatically straightforward sentence seem completely otherworldly. Moreover, his stories often jump quickly between different points in time and points of view with relatively little warning, forcing the reader to infer these shifts from the context.
            Yes, this takes work, but the tales in Night Souls and Other Stories are absolutely worth the work. Most of them have a slightly paranoid atmosphere that develops when two strangers are brought into contact with each other. In ‘Silk, or the Woman with a Bike,’ a young scientist is profoundly affected by a woman he meets briefly on a subway, who—without any explanation—offers him her bike as a gift. In 'Mister X’, an aging architect develops a complicated relationship with his acupuncturist, who may or may not also be involved in a foreign plot to discover the formula for a new building material he has developed (which is, by the way, a new form of water). In ‘Canoe Repair’, several strangers are drawn together by their mutual and inexplicable attraction to an antique canoe made of tree bark.
            Other fixations appear across the stories, including a variety of meditations on water and a deep interest in the furthest frontiers of science, such as bio-engineering and advanced physics like String Theory. Indeed, this should be no surprise, as McElroy has penned one science fiction novel—Plus a story about artificial intelligence published in 1977. McElroy also has one science fiction story here, called ‘The Last Disarmament but One’, a story about the sudden and complete disappearance of one country from the face of the earth due to unexplained physical forces, but it’s a science fiction written in McElroy’s deeply idiosyncratic style.
            Indeed, if you’re looking for an apt comparison for McElroy’s writing, you’d almost need recourse to a medium outside of prose; the 20th Century poet Wallace Stevens (whose poem ‘Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird’ McElroy briefly references in a story by mentioning ‘thirteen ways of looking at a lake’) might be the closest stylist. Simply put, Night Soul and Other Stories is already easily my favourite new book I’ve read this year, and it’s a wonderful introduction to McElroy’s body of work, which represents one of the most important achievements in American literature over the last 50 years. Go buy it now.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Book Review: The Distant Sound

The Distant Sound
By Gert Jonke
Dalkey Archive

Despite being one of the most respected Austrian writers of the late 20th Century, Gert Jonke remains largely unknown in the English-speaking world. In an excellent introduction to Jonke’s new novel, The Distant Sound, translator Jean Snook helps to explain some of the reasons why this is the case. Firstly, as Snook points out, translating Jonke’s unusual prose and sentence-structure is virtually impossible to render in anything like a truly faithful English version. The second reason, however, lies in the difficulty of Jonke’s novels; in Austria, novels like his are described as Gehirnjogging, which translates as ‘brain jogging’. While these difficult books are prized among German-speakers, they are typically marginalised and accused of wilful obscurantism in the English-speaking world.
            Unsurprisingly, The Distant Sound is not a novel that one reads for tight, conventional plotting, but, for all of that, it nonetheless has an interesting premise: a well-known composer (who has now ceased composing) wakes up in a mental hospital without knowing why he is there. He is told that he has attempted suicide, but has no recollection of this act and feels no desire whatsoever to kill himself. He soon falls in love with a young nurse in the hospital who is sympathetic to his plight, and after she suddenly disappears the composer plots his escape to go in search of her. But even after regaining his freedom, his every attempt to locate her is hampered by another absurd turn of events, which shows that the outside world is just as claustrophobic as the insane asylum. (In point of fact, The Distant Sound is actually a sequel to an earlier novel called Homage to Czerny: Studies in Virtuoso Technique, but ignorance of this first book isn’t likely to disrupt your enjoyment of The Distant Sound).
            Despite the seemingly dark, Kafka-esque nature of this material, The Distant Sound is also very much a funny book, filled with humour that recalls the work of absurdist writers like Eugene Ionesco. And it is fittingly full of often-surprising twists and turns that operate with a dream-like logic, resulting in the appearance of a tight-rope walker who can quite literally walk on air, a newspaper staff that spends all day in a train-station café reading newspapers, and the appearance of a horde of strange parasites that may well threaten the future existence of the human race, among many others.
            The Distant Sound is a book that sure to appeal to fans of writers like Franz Kafka, Samuel Beckett, Max Frisch, and, most of all, the Argentinean author Cesar Aira, But whereas Aira’s books are typically brief novellas, The Distant Sound clocks in at close to 300 pages. It’s not that The Distant Sound is boring—indeed, it is never, ever boring—but many of its jokes intentionally take on a repetitive form (in which different characters offer mutually exclusive—and equally ridiculous—interpretations of the exact same phenomenon); while I liked this conceit, most readers’ enjoyment of the novel will depend on the degree to which they appreciate this style. But overall The Distant Sound is an extremely enjoyable farce, which shows that Gert Jonke is certainly deserving of a much larger English readership.