January 13, 2017
In Kotik Letaev, Andrei Bely, author of the much-celebrated novel Petersburg, creates a self-portrait of his earliest years, a period of time very few of us can attest to remember much of, and he does so in a way that preserves the scaffolding of memory. It can come off as very clumsy, or ineloquent, as the author uses no farce to soften the lines of what memory has faded. Instead Kotik Letaev is something of an impressionist portrait, saturated with colors burst from the edges of objects represented. It is a modernist masterpiece, warts and all, loaded with the nuances of Russian society before the Revolution.
November 22, 2016
In 1991 publishers Sandra Ozzola and Sandro Ferri faced a dilemma: their author, who chose to call herself Elena Ferrante, declined their invitation to promote her first book. My job is done, she explained: I wrote it. “Besides, isn’t it true that promotion is expensive? I will be the publishing house’s least expensive author. I’ll spare you even my presence.” Luckily, the owners of Rome’s independent Edizioni E/O accepted Ferrante’s terms: she has made them a fortune (1.6 million sales of the Neapolitan Quartet in the U.S. alone)—all without revealing her identity.
In 1920 André Breton and Philippe Soupault published Les Champs magnétiques (The Magnetic Fields), a defining text of Surrealism. The collection brought together works of “automatic writing” by both young poets announcing a breakthrough model of composition which continues to influence further poetic innovation and remains one of the greatest contributions to literature made by the original Surrealist group. Breton went on to declare himself Surrealism’s Grand Poobah. Many of his works have been broadly translated and are readily available to anglophone readers…
October 3, 2016
Say what you will about Henry James, but whether you think he was an astute chronicler of human psychology or the creator of some of the most convoluted sentences ever written, you’ve got to admit the man understood the importance of joie de vivre. The Canadian-born English writer David Szalay, author of the novels Spring, The Innocent, and London and the South-East, acknowledges this, too. In the first of the nine stories that constitute his latest work, All That Man Is, two English teenagers, Simon and Ferdinand, have arrived in Kraków from Berlin and await the arrival of a man named Otto…
July 9, 2016
In 1842 a Moscow bookseller published Dusk, a slim book, twenty-six short poems, by Yevgeny Baratynsky. The poet’s career seemed years behind him. He had teased the spotlight in his twenties, been acclaimed one of Russia’s finest poets. He counted among his friends the poet and ascending deity of Russian letters, Aleksandr Pushkin. The latter had championed Baratynsky’s work, and the two had shared space in a volume called Two Tales in Verse that contained two narrative poems, one by each. Baratynsky had been mythologized from the outset . . .
June 29, 2016
Brenda Shaughnessy’s fourth collection of poetry is her most mature work to date, deeply concerned with aging and mortality, where the poet has been and where she will end up. The opening poem boasts the title “I Have a Time Machine,” followed by the begrudging admission that “it can only travel into the future / at a rate of one second per second.” The inverse of the time machine’s function is a panoramic view of the past with its endless regrets and psychic wounds to be picked at, ranging from the innocuous, “Myself age eight, whole head burnt with embarrassment / at having lost a library book,” to the oppressive . . .
June 17, 2016
Max Porter’s debut novel Grief Is the Thing with Feathers is unlike any narrative of grief I have ever read. Porter offers a fresh, invigorating treatment of bereavement, illuminating moments in the lives of a husband and two sons as they struggle to find their feet in the wake of a staggering loss.
The widower, known only as Dad, sees off the final “orbiting grievers” and contemplates his solitude. He drinks. He smokes. He is possessed of a “curiously anthropological awareness” of the types of behavior induced by crisis…
May 28, 2016
I’ve felt the strange envy Ada Limón names in “I Remember the Carrots,” the poem from which her fourth collection draws its title: jealousy of the wild order on earth. Recounting that she pulled up her father’s carrot crop, she writes: “I loved them: my own bright dead things. / I’m thirty-five and remember all that I’ve done wrong. / Yesterday I was nice, but in truth I resented / the contentment of the field.” Throughout the book, Limón struggles between oneness with nature and fury that she cannot ultimately, fully, have such a peace.
May 20, 2016
On May 15th, 1941, Stefan Zweig delivered a speech to his fellow European exiles at the American PEN club in New York. After expressing his dismay and shame at the atrocities being committed by the Nazis, he issued a plea for solidarity:
It is for us today, those to whom words are granted, in the midst of a reeling, half-devastated world, to maintain in spite of everything faith in a moral force, confidence in the invincibility of the spirit. Let us then make common cause....
May 7, 2016
There are two poems in Morning Ritual titled “I woke up this morning.” The first of these poems—also the first poem in the collection—seems to be where the title of the collection stems from. Though the theme of waking of course appears at the onset of the second of these, and recurs at various points in the collection, it is this first poem that is the most ritualistic, in the sense of a performance, or magic. This first poem sets the tone (flat, conversational), subject matter (experiences as phenomena of questionable substance), and the poetic devices Rogal will use throughout the rest of the book.
April 30, 2016
David Means, known for his “razor-sharp” short stories, meticulously conceives a complex and recondite reality in his debut novel. Hystopia is told as a frame story detailing an alternate historical timeline. Means takes on the Vietnam War, psychology, treatment for veterans, and the nature of storytelling—or rather, story remembering—in this elaborate narrative. Means’s precision, honed on short stories, lends itself well to this work; his characters are sharply drawn, and though the subject matter is complex, he makes the details manageable. His abstruse narrative evokes Tim O’Brien’s words: “Fiction is the lie that helps us understand the truth.”
April 23, 2016
In his 1925 essay “Art as Device,” Russian literary theorist Viktor Shklovsky coined the word ostranenie, meant to describe writing that leads “to a knowledge of a thing through the organ of sight instead of recognition,” or that employs “a description that changes [an object’s] form without changing its essence.” With ostranenie—in layman’s terms, the replacement of everyday terminologies for common articles and events with unique alternatives—Shklovsky argues, “something strange, something monstrous” occurs: the reader is forced to approach a familiar idea with fresh eyes, experiencing something routine with heightened awareness, as if for the first time.
Edited by Kevin M. F. Platt
April 16, 2016
“By shifting our attention from the ‘I’ to the ‘we,’” David Carr writes in Experience and History, “it is not necessary to leave the first-person point of view behind; we merely take up the plural rather than the singular first person.”
In Hit Parade, by the Orbita Group, we are presented with the work of a self-defined poetry collective, a group of poets who compose works as individuals, though often presenting them in intermedia presentations—in video, or musical collaborations. It is questionable what the benefit of handing something as personal as one’s lyrical identity over to a group might be, but it isn’t facetious....
Terese Svoboda creates an image of witness with the opening scene of Anything That Burns You: A Portrait of Lola Ridge, Radical Poet. At a protest against the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, the hooves of police horses rear up over Ridge’s bowed head. She stands immobile, willing to be martyred on behalf of anarchists and immigrants—two identities central to her life and work as well as the tumultuous era she helped shape. Svoboda—poet, novelist, memoirist, and translator—has reclaimed the life of this neglected, pioneering writer, compelling us to share her passion for Ridge....
Michael Henry Heim and a Life in Translation (edited by Esther Allen, Sean Cotter, and Russell Scott Valentino)
March 11, 2016
“Do you enjoy fiction in translation?”
When asked this question by The New York Times Book Review, Stephen King gave a discouraging answer: “I actually avoid novels in translation when I can,” he said, “because I always have the feeling that the author is being filtered through another mind.” This insular attitude toward literature—expressed without irony by an internationally famous author whose books have been translated into dozens of languages—is apparently common among American readers: of all the books published in the United States, only 3% are translations.
March 4, 2016
“You can’t live on bread…,” a woman tells her lover, Mike, in You Should Pity Us Instead, Amy Gustine’s debut collection of stories. But Mike replies, “Prisoners do.” Such are the meager lives of Gustine’s characters in this collection of stories about people in trying times. The tone of You Should Pity Us Instead is somber, but this is not a negative critique; in fact, Gustine’s stories illustrate well the strengths of the genre, and how small moments of pain can end up affecting people deeply. Short stories allow the reader glimpses into a few heartbeats of a life, and it is usually in our most difficult moments that we define our own personalities....
February 26, 2016
For anyone who is interested in German literature but unable to read it unless it has been translated into English, Seagull Books provides an essential resource: the German List, a series of beautifully designed books by some of the German language’s most talented authors, past and present (including Peter Handke, Max Frisch, Christa Wolf, Theodor Adorno, and Wolfgang Hilbig). The latest title to appear on the list is Christoph Ransmayr’s Atlas of an Anxious Man, a collection of seventy short “episodes” in which the acclaimed Austrian writer travels all over the world...
February 19, 2016
Emerence is a housekeeper for a writer named Magda, and the two women couldn’t be any more different. That sentence, in all its ordinariness, could legitimately stand as a plot description for Magda Szabó’s subtle and fascinating novel The Door. The events that take place are dramatic at times, to be sure, but they function more as isolated incidents rather than a narrative whole. Emerence is the through-line; she is the connective tissue that brings together the disparate parts to make a body. She is—like Gatsby, Ahab, or Daisy Miller—what I call a study character...
January 15, 2016
In 1982 Roger Straus, the publisher of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, couldn’t decide between two manuscripts by Italian writers, proclaiming, in his typically tactful way, “Come on, how many Wops can I publish?” So he deferred, as he often did, to Susan Sontag. The first manuscript was The Day of Judgment by Salvatore Satta, a ponderous, meditative novel filled with lengthy reflections and philosophical lyricism but nary a plot. The other book was Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a meta-narrative/detective noir/historical novel hybrid that was fast-paced and intricate, heady and riveting...
December 28, 2015
In a recent article in Publishers Weekly, Emma Koonse discusses the enduring popularity of C. S. Lewis: half a century after his death, new editions of his works continue to be published; The Chronicles of Narnia, Mere Christianity, and The Screwtape Letters still sell in great quantities; biographers find novel ways of telling the story of his life, and scholars persist in analyzing his writings. But what is absent from this discussion of Lewis—what seems to be absent from almost every discussion of Lewis—is any reference to his literary criticism.
November 27, 2015
Unbeknownst to most Americans (including, I hasten to admit, myself), for the past half century Patrick Modiano has built a literary legacy in his native France. It was not until he received the Nobel Prize in Literature that the United States took real notice, and the consequent translations of his novels appearing now and well into next year will certainly solidify the notice into a reputation. First was last year’s Suspended Sentences, a trilogy of novellas set during the Nazi occupation, a period Modiano returns to again and again. (Apparently his father’s dubious activities during the war spur this fixation on.) And now we have another short work, So You Don’t Get Lost in the Neighborhood...
October 13, 2015
In Jonathan Franzen’s novel Purity, the has-been writer Charlie Blenheim spirals into an alcoholic haze while he attempts “to write the big book, the novel that would secure him his place in the modern American canon. Once upon a time, it had sufficed to write The Sound and the Fury or The Sun Also Rises. But now bigness was essential. Thickness, length.” The dark comedy of Charlie’s writer’s block reflects something of the mania the literary world has over big novels. Recently, this has been evidenced by the buzz around Garth Risk Hallberg’s 900-page debut novel, City on Fire...
August 21, 2015
In Civilization and Its Discontents, Freud describes the essential characteristic of civilization as “its esteem and encouragement of man’s higher mental activities—his intellectual, scientific, and artistic achievements—and the leading role that it assigns to ideas in human life.” Mario Vargas Llosa believes that ideas have lost this leading role, that they no longer matter as they once did. “Today,” he writes in Notes on the Death of Culture, “images have primacy over ideas.” Ours is an impatient world of perpetual distractions...
August 14, 2015
In his slim but astute volume Why Read Moby-Dick?, Nathaniel Philbrick—author of the National Book Award-winning In the Heart of the Sea, which tells the story of the Essex, the whaleship upon which Melville’s Pequod was based—has this to say about the metaphorical content of Ahab’s ship:
Just as Nantucket is largely a rhetorical construct, so is the Pequod not of this world. She is the mythic incarnation of America: a country blessed by God and by free enterprise that nonetheless embraces the barbarity it supposedly supplanted.
July 11, 2015
As the Nazis dropped bombs onto London in the summer of 1944, P.D. James—pregnant with her second child—retreated to her friend’s basement and read Jane Austen. The world was at war, but for a few moments James found a “blessed atmosphere of sanity and peace” in the pages of a book.
Literature, at its simplest, offers an escape from reality, a distraction from our present troubles, a glimpse of better possibilities. We often turn to fiction when life becomes unpleasant, overwhelming, or incomprehensible, for we find in imagined worlds what is missing in the real one...
July 3, 2015
Narrative chronology is a fluid thing; if the Modernists taught us anything, surely this is it. The warp and woof of time’s malleability, expanding and contracting within the Bergsonian experience of “duration,” is part and parcel of not only our own fraught internal histories but also the thematic concerns of high literature itself. Joyce’s Ulysses, perhaps the definitive Western literary statement, takes place in a single day, the hours bent and stretched to encompass the teeming pen of modern consciousness. Woolf’s To the Lighthouse treats traditional chronology with disdain...
June 17, 2015
Tracy K. Smith’s exquisite memoir Ordinary Light primarily traces three narrative threads—her relationships with her mother, with religion, and with herself—which are all tied together by Smith’s discovery of poetry. Raised in a Baptist family, Smith struggled through much of her life to resolve the ever-growing conflict between the certainty of her mother’s beliefs and the ambiguity of the real world. She found a kind of happy medium with poetry and went on to publish three volumes of it, the latest of which, 2012’s Life on Mars, won a Pulitzer Prize.
May 27, 2015
John Gardner described John Fowles as “the only novelist now writing in English whose works are likely to stand as literary classics—the only writer in English who has the power, range, knowledge, and wisdom of a Tolstoy or James.” While I cannot endorse this contentious claim, I do not think that Gardner was entirely misguided in making it. Fowles possessed an intelligence and curiosity that few contemporary writers can match. He was a beguiling storyteller whose deep interest in philosophical ideas was accompanied by a vibrant and evocative style...
February 25, 2015
“I’m extremely inquisitive and curious,” Hermione Lee said in an interview with The Paris Review. “Perhaps that’s temperamentally why I’ve been attracted to biography. I want to penetrate those secret places, find out everything, and be completely ruthless.” This spirit of relentless curiosity has led her to write exceptional biographies of Virginia Woolf, Edith Wharton, Willa Cather, and Penelope Fitzgerald, and it guides her, in the four essays collected in Virginia Woolf’s Nose, as she investigates the challenges biographers face when attempting to turn their subjects’ lives into literature.
October 5, 2014
Vladimir Nabokov famously defended a literal approach to translation, which he defined as “rendering, as closely as the associative and syntactical capacities of another language allow, the exact contextual meaning of the original.” His English translation of Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin frustrated readers and critics when it was published, and it remains to this day a controversial version of the classic Russian text. “In translating its 5,500 lines into English,” Nabokov said, “I had to decide between rhyme and reason—and I chose reason.”
August 24, 2014
In this age of the unnecessary memoir, when the desire to tell a story is far more important than actually having a story to tell, it is refreshing to come across a book as charming as The Gardener of Versailles. Having been the head gardener at Versailles for thirty years, Alain Baraton certainly has a unique story to tell, as well as an endearingly straightforward way of telling it. One could be entirely uninterested in gardening and still find plenty to enjoy in this book.
July 23, 2014
“She sees with incredible clarity,” Aldous Huxley once remarked of Virginia Woolf, “but always as though through a sheet of plate glass; she never touches anything.” This evaluation seems especially accurate regarding The London Scene, a collection of lucid, insightful, and ironic essays on the peculiarities of life in London in the early 1930s. Woolf describes the city and its inhabitants with exceptional skill, but her sentiments are those of an observer, not a participant. These are the essays of a novelist: they portray the real world as if it were a fictional one.