For the past couple of years I’ve been reading lots of short story collections by living American writers, looking for something that sparks with creativity, not often finding much. Lauren Groff is generally accepted as one of the prime divas of the MFA world of writing. The stories in this new collection, “Florida” (Riverhead Books, 2018), have been previously published in some of the premier venues in the U.S.: The New Yorker, American Short Fiction, Granta, Tin House, among others. They have been featured as well in three different anthologies of Best American Short Stories. Does that mean they are good? Alas, owing to the stranglehold that the standard MFA racket in fiction holds on these once-august publications, I’ve learned not to get my expectations up too high. Continue reading
“I wasn’t sure what he was hinting at, but I had a sense he was offering me something abominable—like decaffeinated coffee or coitus interruptus.”
U.R. Bowie, author of Such Is the Scent of Our Sweet Opalescence
The American writer Don DeLillo is the poet of “an insidious and chronic disquiet.” But in what is probably his best novel, White Noise, a wild spirit of rambunctious laughter crashes through the disquiet, dismantles the morbid tentativeness, and roars out its sheer joy in the absurd act of human existence.
“Only part of us is sane: only part of us loves pleasure and the longer day of happiness, wants to live to our nineties [she did] and die in peace, in a house that we built, that shall shelter those who come after us. The other half of us is nearly mad. It prefers the disagreeable to the agreeable, loves pain and its darker night despair, and wants to die in a catastrophe that will set back life to its beginnings and leave nothing of our house save its blackened foundations. Our bright natures fight in us with this yeasty darkness, and neither part is commonly quite victorious, for we are divided against ourselves.”
Rebecca West, Black Lamb and Grey Falcon
THE ACME OF METAFICTION, THE QUINTESSENCE OF POSTMODERNISM
Some important works of fiction deserve another look, another read, even some forty years after their original publication. Such is Italo Calvino’s tour de force of a novel—published originally in Italian as Se una notte d’inverno un viaggiatore in 1979, translated into English by William Weaver (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981). The novel is actually an anti-novel, and one of the most creative works about reading and writing fiction that I have ever read. Continue reading
Originally published in England by Collins, 1988; republished by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, New York, a Mariner Books paperback edition, 2015, 246 pp.
Set in Russia in 1913, this is an astounding book. Seldom does a novel so astound me. My first question is “How did Penelope Fitzgerald do it?” In an article on the writer Julian Barnes mentions that everyone asked this same question about her last four novels, all set in foreign locales. Andrew Miller asks it again in his introduction to the paperback edition: “how on earth can someone living in England in the second half of the twentieth century know so much about the minutiae of day to day life in Moscow in 1913?” Continue reading
Some time back I wrote a review of The Conductor, by a writer from New Zealand, Sarah Quigley—the review is available here on the site of Dactyl Review. Set in Leningrad during the Nazi siege of WW II, the book details the life of a rather unassuming and humble musician, who gets his chance to conduct Shostakovich’s Seventh Symphony, dedicated to the besieged city. Quigley’s novel is good, especially sparking for its insights into classical music and its depictions of Shostakovich, but it is full of details that produce unintentional comic effects.
These details are indicative of a writer who knows little about Russian life and culture, speaks no Russian, and may not have ever set foot in the city of St. Petersburg (Leningrad). In one of the biggest howlers in the book, The Bronze Horseman—that statue of Peter the Great in Petersburg and the most famous monument in the whole country—is described as waving a sword in one hand. The fertile imagination of the author conjures up that sword and describes it in some detail: “His sword had a greenish hue towards the hilt, but its tip was bright from the touch of many hands.” Nice sword, except that on the actual statue it does not exist.
I’ve recently read two other novels set in Russia: (1) David Benioff, City of Thieves (Viking Penguin, 2008) and (2) Amor Towles, A Gentleman in Moscow (Viking, 2016). Both books have been well received, attracting favorable reviews and scads of readers. And with good reason, since they both have appealing characters and fascinating plots. Continue reading
The Best American Short Stories, 2017 (Selected from U.S. and Canadian Magazines by Meg Wolitzer with Heidi Pitlor), Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2017, 303 pp.
Ten years ago the writer Elif Batuman wrote an article on two anthologies titled Best American Short Stories, for the years 2004 and 2005. Her amazing conclusion, well-reasoned and argued, was that many of the “best stories” in these collections were not very good stories. As she puts it, “Contemporary short stories contain virtually no reference to any interesting work being done in the field over the past twenty, fifty, or hundred years; instead, middle-class women keep struggling with kleptomania, deviant siblings keep going in and out of institutions, people continue to be upset by power outages and natural disasters, and rueful writerly types go on hesitating about things.” Domestic realism. Urggh. Continue reading
These remarks are based, largely, on Emily Wilson’s book review of Mark Polizzotti, Sympathy for the Traitor: A Translation Manifesto (MIT Press, 2018). The review appears in the New York Review of Books, May 24, 2018, p. 46-47.
Assuming that most of us are not bilingual or trilingual, without literary translation we cannot read novels, stories, poems written in foreign languages. But practically no one seems to agree on what makes for a good literary translation. The crucial question always seems to be how much leeway the translator is given. Must he/she (1) remain very close to the original, producing a literal translation that may not read well in the target language? (2) diverge from the original to produce a kind of imitation? (3) push the imitation so far that it amounts to a traducing of the original (even though it may read well and be a work of creative art in the target language)? Continue reading
“We must read only the kind of books that wound and stab us. If the book we are reading does not wake us up with a blow to the head, then what are we reading it for? A book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” …Franz Kafka
Some of the best writers in world literature—Kafka in German, say, Isaac Babel in Russian, Philip Roth in English—are the kind of writers who love to inflict blows to the head of the reader. In so doing they must, however, be ever aware that someone smacked upside the head will yell, and yell loudly.
Nathaniel Rich discusses this issue in regard to Roth (NYRB, March 8, 2018).
Philip Roth had “to defend himself and to explain himself to the paranoid assimilationists of his father’s generation who berated him for ‘informing the goyim that some Jews might not be paragons of virtue and might even possess human qualities.’” Roth told his detractors, “Fiction is not written to affirm the principles and beliefs that everybody seems to hold.” This was in response to the reaction to his story, “Defender of the Faith,” published in The New Yorker in 1959. Continue reading